First, a definiton of the word coup as I am using it in this post for those of you unfamiliar with it. Originally from the French language (in the term coup d'etat) but often used in modern English for political discourse, a coup is a "seizure of political power, the sudden violent overthrow of a government and seizure of political power, especially by the military" (courtesy of Bing Dictionary as its first definition). There are a few other definitions, but my topic will be about the political alterations to American society by certain elites at key moments in our nation's short world history. Some reading this (particularly those who agree with these alterations and see nothing harmful in them, but consider it all the natural normal sweep of human history and development that must occur - sounding just like the victors who write the official histories) will clearly disagree with my Libertarian interpretations of our gradual erosion from a written governing document (and not the one you're thinking of) to the point where it's largely ignored by those politicians alleged bound under its limitations or invoked only for some political advantage in the current quarrel of the day.
According to the standard US historical narrative, America was founded with 13 British colonies declared their independence in a single Declaration signed and announced on July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia, a parchment listing the greivances of the colonies toward their sovereign King George III (and by inference the King's Privy Council that oversaw British colonial affairs and policy and the British Parliament) and declaring the right to alter or abolish any government when it became tyrannical toward the citizens' liberties as free born Englishmen (I won't get into the incongruity that lack of women's rights or the institution of slavery effectively caused when measured against the principles of this document). One related issue I will mention, the colonists' accusation of "No Taxation without Representation" was in truth a hollow one strictly speaking. The Parliament had prior to the Declaration offered the 13 Colonies seats in their body meeting at Westminster, one seat for each colony in a body of around 650 Membes of Parliament. Even Ireland with its smaller land area and larger population had more MPs than America's 3 million subjects would have rated. And 13 MPs in a body that large would have carried little weight in terms of legislative policy or effectiveness, compared to Britain's desire to recoup their costs of fighting the recent French and Indian War (1754-1763) in North America against France by taxing the relatively freely governed colonies for that revenue.
In 1776, the Continental Congress of the 13 States began drafting the Articles of Confederation for the individual state legislatures to ratify, the sufficient number reached by 1781 for the document to take effect. It contained a unicameral (one chamber) legislature called Congress, no Supreme Court and a President that was merely the Congress' presiding officer (there were 13 of them from 1781-87 serving brief terms). The document allowed the states to largely regulate their own affairs, gave Congress little borrowing power and no taxation or commerce regulation powers. It also provided for The Bahamas and Canada to someday join this voluntary Union which they did not. The lack of national government power to stop border or trade disputes among the states, the Revolutionary War debt after 1783 when the war was ended by the Peace of Paris (in which Great Britain made peace with the 13 States not one nation called the United States) that triggered uprisings from speculators buying up debt papers such as Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts, and other governing issues, persuaded Congress to call a convention in Philadelphia in 1786. These delegates were empowered by Congress only to make alterations by recommendations to the existing Articles of Confederation, never to write a new document as they did in 1787 - the paper we now know as The Constitution of the United States. The reasons this was the first coup against our young republic I now give. First the Convention had no original authority to conceive a new document to replace the old, despite Congress accepting their work sent to the states for ratification. Second, it was used by advocates of stronger central government like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (changing his mind later) to create a federal government that was resposible to regulate itself with three separate co-equal branches. Third it was vague enough in places that permitted broader interpretations of its meaning over the ensuing decades until portions like the Necessary and Proper, Taxation and Commerce Clauses in Congress' 18 enumerated (specifically permitted) powers are used to justify any expansion of federal power (not to mention the Preamble's so-called General Welfare Clause being misinterpreted to mean the federal state must provide as well as promote welfare of its people).
The Federalists (who should've been labeled Nationalists or Centralists since they believed in a stronger central state than existed before 1789 when Virginia became the 9th state to ratify the Constitution as per its authorizing text) tried to reassure the powers of the new national government would be bound down by the "Chains of the Constitution" (actually a phrase from Anti-Federalist Thomas Jefferson) and by the sovereignty of the states (the original 13 that predated the United States government and those later admitted by terms of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787) through their control of most governmental matters not given specifically to the federal government in the first three Articles. Of course the anti-Federalists (who should've been called Federalists, based on the strict definition of federal as meaning various levels of co-equal government, not a dominant strong central state) insited a Bill of Rights (12 proposed amendments to the new Constitution, of which 10 became ratified in 1791 and an 11th one in 1992, the 12th never ratified) to preserve the rights of the states and the people from certain potential national government power abuses. Of course as we have seen in modern times, those 10 Amendments are now treated as anachronisms to be discarded when inconvenient to some greater national purpose of the moment such as the War on Terror, Gun Control or Federal Supremacy (not the original intent of that particular Clause in Article 6) over the people.
Despite its defects, the Constitution served America adequately despite periods of overarching Federal action, such as 1798's Alien and Sedition Acts meant to punish immigrants who voted Democratic (the party was called Democratic-Repuhlican before 1832 developing from the Anti-Federalist faction) instead of Federalist (the party of George Washington and John Adams, the first two Presidents under the Constitution) and those that criticized President Adams' administration. But then the sectional crises of Slavery and Tariff Rates gradually developed to eventually fracture this country apart by 1861.
I won't go into the lengthy history of everything from The Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 or the Dred Scott Supreme Court Decision of 1857 and other points in America leading to the misnamed Civil War. I will only say that the Federal Government's actions during the years 1861-1865 and to some extend the following twelve years afterward known as the Reconstruction Era altered this nation in profound ways some of our Founders never contemplated or intended (especially the Anti-Federalists). I lay the blame for this distortion of our nation's overall freedom upon the Lincoln Administration and a compliant Republican rump Congress missing Southern Democratic Congressmen and Senators called home by their seceding states (only Tennessee Unionist Democratic Senator and later Vice-President and President Andrew Johnson refusing to leave Washington, D.C.). First a little background on how government in some ways govened less than today (and it was a good thing in hindsight). A newly elected Congress would not convene (unless through extraordinary circumstances or summoned by the President) until the late autumn after the last election and meet through the winter months for the most part to pass legislation. The reason was climatic, since Washington, D.C. was built on swampy land in what was originally southern Maryland along the Potomac River. Before the advent of Air Conditioning, the heat and humidity necessitated that Congress meet in other seasons besides summer unless for some emergency such as a war declaration vote that could not wait. So after the Deep South states (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas) had seceded by spring 1861, the lame duck James Buchanan Administration allowed them to leave without making military threats, believing the federal government could not compel the states to remain in the Constitutional Union as a voluntary association. Unfortunately, Abraham Lincoln and the new Republican Party could not allow the cotton states (the richest region in America then) to leave and stop paying tariffs (essentially importation taxes on goods that funded the federal government's budget for the most part before 1913) as they imported more in terms of foreign manufactured goods than the Northern, Midwestern or Far Western States. In his inaugural address, Mr. Lincoln made no mention of slavery as an issue against the Deep South, even advocation ratification of a recently passed Amendment (the Corwin Amendment) that would protect Slavery from federal interference within the Constitution. Dishonest Abe was more concerned the customs tarrifs were being collected at all Southern ports for funding his crony capitalist schemes benefiting supporters of the Grand Old Party, such as the federal subsidy for the transcontinental railroad. Lincoln has been a railroad lobbyist/lawyer in Illinois when not serving in state or federal government and was one of the richest men in Springfield as one result.
Of course the Seven Confederate States wanted all federal installations and lands as their states' property, but Lincoln stubbornly refused to withdraw two Army forts of their garrisons - Fort Sumter, South Carolina and Fort Pickens, Florida - after the Confederate government had seized all other such installations. The canny President even tried resupplying the small unit inside Fort Sumter in early April to force the Montgomery (first capital), Alabama government and South Carolina's government to take the first shot for provoking a war, before the garrison under Major Anderson was forced to withdraw for lack of food from their surrounded brick fort inside Charleston harbor. The shore batteries drove off a steamer sent by Lincoln to stubbornly resupply the fort. Three days later after an ultimatum was ignored for the US Army to abandon the fort and receive safe conduct from South Carolina, the surrounding militia cannons fired on the fort, giving Lincoln his causus bellorum (a Latin phrase meaning cause or justification for war from some provocative aggressive act). With the Congress elected in 1860 not yet in formal session until months later, the 16th President broadly and illegally interpreted his authority for suppressing domestic insurrection to give him power to issue a proclamation for 75,000 volunteer militia from the states to invade the Confederate States of America, a nation he never acknowledged as even existing (considering them rebellious US territory). In addition to this heavy-handed action, he would go on to jail Democratic newspaper editors or publishers (back then newspapers were more overtly partisan than today) who criticized his invasion of the South, had it made a crime to criticize the conflict, the President or not to defend the President when criticized, prevent pro-secession legislators in Maryland from meeting in their legislature in 1861, occupied Baltimore with federal troops, and even threaten to arrest the Chief Justice Roger B. Tanney for disagreeing with Lincoln's unconstitutional actions. Another consequence of his actions in 1861 was for four more states to secede from the US after April 15, 1861 (Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia) not over the perceived threat from the Republican Party to slavery or pushing new economically punishing tariffs upon the South, but refusing to use their militias under federal command to invade other states (or allow such an invasion to proceed south through their state territories).
The greatest sin Abraham Lincoln and his Party committed in effect during those terrible years, in which it is now estimated some 700,000 to 800,000 soldiers and civilians died from battle, collateral damage or illness made worse by warfare, was waging an undeclared war on 11 sovereign states that decided to form their own national government free of Washington, D.C. for whatever reason motivated the impulse - be it the institution of slavery (which still existed in four loyalist border states - Delaware, Maryland, Missouri and Kentucky - until the 13th Amendment was ratified by a sufficient number of states in December 1865), higher tarrifs being passed onto the wallets of southerners to pay for northern internal improvements such as the transcontinental railroad or land grant colleges that were crony capitalistic spoils for well-connected Republicans, or the principle of state sovereignty. The issue of secession was never truly decided by this war, except through the principle of "might makes right" and the "victors write the history." Even a later Supreme Court case that allegedly decided against secession as a political remedy does not squash the theory that the original 13 states were sovereign in 1776 before they even formed the Articles of Confederation government, and in three of their state constitutions - New York, Rhode Island and Virginia - were clauses permitting seccession from the union, even if only Virginia ever exercised the right. Of course Lincoln's tyranical actions continued as the undeclared War of Northern Aggression/War Against Southern Independence at times went against the preponderance of northern arms and manpower. After what was essentially a costly draw battle at Antietam Creek (Sharpsburg, Maryland) in September 1862, Lincoln drew up his Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863 and only liberating slaves in areas of states rebelling against the United States where there was no federal authority. Many progressive voices hail this as the turning point in the Great Emancipator's view on slavery and the war's aims from being for merely preserving the Union. In fact the proclamation did not free slaves in the four border slave states or any part of a rebellious state occupied by the US Army for the war's duration. Some individual commanders tried to free slaves in certain areas, but these acts were usually overriden by the War Department or the slaves were conscriptied as labor for the US Army.
Other dishonest tactics of minor note and later historical commentary Honest Abe dabbled in would include illegally creating the State of West Virginia from 53 counties that rejected Virginia secession vote and declared themselves loyal to the US as the Government of Virginia which Lincoln recognized. He then allowed them in 1862 to give their counties permission (as required by the Constitution for the creation of a new state from an existing one) to form a new state government. Of course the other 107 Virginia counties in the Confederacy were not consulted or cast any vote on the matter, and for the sake of expediency two occupied northern Virginia counties through which the Baltimore and Ohio railroad going from Washington, D.C. and Maryland to the midwestern US were forced to join West Virginia (in its eastern panhandle). Lincoln did something similar with the 1864 admission of Nevada to the Union, since that far territory east of California had only some 20,000 odd inhabitants within its borders, but the President persuaded his majority party in Congress to waive Congressional requirements for any territory to have 60,000 inhabitants as a candidate for statehood. Even though Nevada had no more impact on the war than California or Oregon, it did give Lincoln 3 more potential electoral votes for 1864's election, two Republican senators and one representative for Congress after 1864. The President in addition to jailing opponents of his tyranical actions and waging war, also had a Ohio Democratic Congressman, Clement Valandingham, expelled from the US for speaking out in Congress against the Republican Administration and its actions, the Republicans calling Valandingham and other peace Democrats copperheads because they wore snipped-off pieces of copper pennies as a symbol. The Presidnet also suspended for the war's duration the right of Habeus Corpus, an old English common law precedent effectively enshrined in the Bill of Rights in which a prisoner arrested and held for some crime must be formally charged and given his day in court to defend against said charges. In other words, Lincoln was practicing the same principle of Indefinite Detention our current leaders permit to foreign terrorism suspects at the US Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba and threaten to all American citizens today with the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act's provisions. There is also some things I've read in recent years that implies Lincoln and his Repubilcan political machine rigged the 1864 election to gain his larger victory (compared to winning a large plurality of popular votes in a four-way race where his name did not appear on any Southern state's ballot but a narrow Electoral College win) over Democratic candidate former General George B. McClellan, having soldiers intimidate opponents at polling places in various places, making certain soldiers got leaves to cast ballots or vote absentee from the field, and other tricks to suppress the Democratic vote versus the Lincoln Union Party Ticket. The US Army was also guilty during the war of brutality against civilians who sympathized with the Confederacy in Kentucky and Missouri - the latter state seeing brutal acts by both Union Jayhawker and Confederate Bushwhacker irregular cavalry units against towns and farms of the opposing side in terms of sympathies.
After Lincoln's assassination, forever making him a holy martyr in the American Civic Religion when he was not so universally loved when he lived and ruled over this republic with his numerous abuses of power, the further transformation of our nation from a republic of sovereign states that were represented to the outside world by the federal government to a single nation with a centralized national government that lorded over the states as subservient territories was reinforced by the 12-year period of Southern Reconstruction. This military occupation period over the eleven former Confederate States may have ushered in emancipation of all former slaves and given them voting rights for the first time (the Republicans exploiting this for their own continued power beyond the North, Midwest and Far West with no concern for blacks and whites having to coexist in a new reality), but it also forced new Southern legislatures to accept repeated new peace terms beyond what Old Abe had originally intended. The one good thing Lincoln did in his final year as President was to allow 10% of a seceded state to swear a loyalty oath for that state to be fully readmitted to the union. With his death, the GOP in Congress elected in 1864 and 1866 would be more dominated by the so-called Radical Republicans who wanted to punish the South, already defeated and virtually bankrupted by the war (and the poorest region afterwards for close to a century or more), for daring to leave the union and being former slave states. The 13th Amendment's ratification was the first of several conditions Congress put in place for those 11 states in their military occupation district groupings to be readmitted, along with no former Confederate government official or military leader being allowed to hold elective office after the war at first. But as the era of Reconstruction dragged onward into the Johnson and Grant Administrations, the Congress then made ratification of the 14th Amendment (equal protection under the law, black citizenship equality and other issues it covered) and 15th Amendment (black male voting rights to be ensured) additional conditions for the Southern States to fully rejoin the union in 1868 and 1870. What sort of peace can exist where the victors continually change the conditions for the defeated to accept to permit their return to the national fold? The one good result of this period would have to be the reaction against future military law enforcement functions as practiced over the Southern districts in Reconstruction in 1878's Posse Comitatus Law which forbade such use of the armed forces in the US ever again (until effectively struck down by various post-2001 laws passed for the War on Terror and other government actions in the Executive Branch). Sadly the black voter had no protection when the US Army was withdrawn after the bargain to get Rutherford B. Hayes elected President after a split Electoral College result in 1877, and the heavy federal hand over the South in a region where (to some extent) the different races formerly master and slave had to live together certainly helped to poison race relations for close to a century, reflected in Jim Crow laws (originated in Northern States actually and adopted by the South - such as vagrancy laws and separate racially segregated public facilities) and suppression of the then mostly Republican black vote by poll taxes and literacy tests (that dumb or illiterate whites did not have to take under the watchful eye of white Democratic election officials for three or four generations).
But aside from all the deaths and misery that costliest war in US history inflicted on this nation, it forever altered the federal dynamic of states daring to nullify federal laws (dating back to the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions written by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson in protest of the tryanical actions pursued by the John Adams' administration and its Federalist majority Congress) and asserting state's rights of sovereignty over matters not delegated to the national government specifically in the Constitution, replacing it with a larger federal central government grown larger from necessities of war and handing out more money to connected corporate and political interests for what some historians called the later 19th Century's Guilded Age. Yes, industrial progress and social progress was astounding in some ways during the years following Reconstruction, but America was now expanding to new territories and states, exterminating the Indian Tribe populations in their way with the same brutality learned in war against the Confederate States, but treating the mislabeled "savages" with far greater cruelty. This would lead to the next terrible turning point in America's descent into imperial ambitions beyond the continental United States and the often lauded period known as the Progressive Age. I will start my next turning point essay with the Creature from Jekyll Island, Georgia and the terrible amendments added to our Constitution after 1912 (here's a hint, I dislike all four of them to some degree or other - not just the Alcohol Prohibition one that got repealed in 1933 - and I'll be glad to explain why next time).