In a few days, the GOP takes formal control of the House, and it seems I’m not alone in taking stock of the situation. As usual, I take the broad view, not into finding the way forward for the liberal-progressive agenda, but in taking stock. I begin with the question, “where are we today?” and proceed from there. However, no matter how I try to get away from it, I find myself focused lately on the seminal moment, that period from 1776 to 1789 and the American movement from royal subject to politically empowered citizen. It was a rocky road.
Birth of a Nation . . .
“In 1771, a bill was introduced in the Massachusetts legislature to abolish slavery. It failed. A friend wrote John Adams, if it would have passed, it would have a poor effect on the union of the colonies. The reason Bostonians . . . were not able to abolish slavery in 1771, was for the same reasons that the compromises were made during the Constitutional Convention over the three-fifths clause. Taking a stronger stand in the North would have really made the union of the colonies difficult.”Source
Author’s note: Yes, the compromise worked. Federalists won the day. However, consider the costs of that compromise, both in the continuation of chattel slavery and it’s echoes today, and on the war which needed to be undertaken to preserve this union.
Representatives from each of the colonies met in Philadelphia, and on 4 July, 1776 produced the Declaration of Independence, which led to the revolution lasting five years until the surrender of Cornwallis at the Siege of Yorktown in 1781. By the time the delegates to the Continental Congress had decided on war, they realized that their efforts needed a coordinating authority to finance and prosecute the war, and immediately set up a committee to draft the Articles of Confederation, which was sent to the colonies for ratification in 1777, and became the first constitution of the United States of America when the last state had ratified it on 1 March, 1781.
After the British surrendered in October of that year, this hastily written document, conceived under the duress of an impending war with the world’s greatest military power, became the organizing principle under which the states agreed to cooperate:
The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever.
A “league of friendship” was established, not a real state (which echoes strongly the state of the European Union today). During the war, this league had trouble raising funds to pay and supply their troops, had trouble raising troops in some instances, and had numerous other problems getting cooperation from their “friends.” After the war, the commercial and territorial competition between these “friends” was barely kept from breaking into violence. A badly needed navy was prevented from being established to counter the depredations of the Barbary Pirates because these “friends” refused to contribute to its creation. North of the Ohio River, British troops still held forts in violation of the Treaty of Paris, and could not be dislodged. In a treaty with Spain, the United States had agreed to forgo the rights of navigation for 30 years, which westward expansion depended on, and the treaty was so unpopular it was never ratified.
The Commonwealth of Virginia issued a call to the states for a convention to discuss these and other problems made apparent by the lack of a central government powerful enough to take action and enforce its will. Which sounds ominous, but at this time, the concerns were mainly centered around foreign affairs. The western territories were in danger of being lost, or at least not fully secured (the British in those forts, for example), and American shipping was without any protection at all. The United States was in danger of remaining a weak and vulnerable littoral country, surrounded by European powers on land and open to attack by sea—and unable to reliably count on the revenues needed to raise forces needed to repel westward encroachment or outright attack.
So, the call went out, first published in the Maryland Journal, for a convention to discuss the situation for a new convention to be held in Annapolis Maryland. Every state would hopefully send delegates, but as usual, the states demurred.
Only a dozen delegates from five states bothered to show up. Three days later they went home.
But it was not entirely a waste of effort. Before they left, they issued an address, written by Alexander Hamilton, which succeeded in bringing forth another convention, in Philadelphia in May of 1787. It is from this point on that the debate which shapes our politics today begins in earnest. Punctuated by a little bit of history. Before the Philadelphia Convention, a group of farmers, led by Daniel Shay and Henry Gale, conducted an armed revolt protesting taxes being levied on them by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, of which Thomas Jefferson, then in Paris, remarked, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
The Birth of Blogging . . .
Today on Meet The Press, Senator Lindsay Graham outlines his legislative priorities: cut spending, save Medicare and Social Security by raising the qualifying age, and build permanent military bases in Afghanistan.
So who was against the formation of a strong federal government? You may recognize some of the arguments still being offered today:
“Those furious zealots who are for cramming it down the throats of the people, without allowing them either time or opportunity to scan or weigh it in the balance of their understandings, bear the same marks in their features as those who have long wished to erect and aristocracy in this Commonwealth.”
“We are now told by the honorable gentleman (Governor Randolph) that we shall have wars and rumors of wars, that every calamity is to attend us, and that we shall be ruined and disunited forever, unless we adopt this Constitution.”
“The old Congress was a national government and a union of States, both brought into one political body . . . It stood perfectly still. It would not move at all. Those who were merely confederal in their views, were for dividing the public debt. Those who were for national government, were for the increasing of it . . . . Either in 82 or 83, ten millions of hard dollars, if not thirteen, were called into the continental treasury, when there could not be half that sum in the whole tract of land between Nova Scotia and Florida.”Taken from the Antifederalist Papers
“UNRESTRICTED POWER OVER COMMERCE SHOULD NOT BE GIVEN THE NATIONAL GOVERNMENT”
The tension between the obligations and rights of both citizen and government has never been resolved, and I find it profoundly striking how the rhetoric and positions today resemble those two hundred and thirty years old. And everyone today can find the voice of one founding father or another to bolster their argument.
Alexander Hamilton got himself appointed to the Philadelphia Convention as a delegate from New York, however he was an oddity. New York governor George Clinton strongly opposed changing the Articles of Confederation and packed the delegation with like minded opponents. At one point, the entire delegation, except Hamilton walked out of the convention, and sitting there alone, Hamilton realized that if the powers that be in New York State, orchestrated by Governor Clinton, would sink ratification of the constitution unless an organized effort was made to make the case.
It was then that Hamilton, Madison and Jay agreed to become the nation’s first political bloggers, writing under the pseudonymous name “Publius” (of the people). In response, a Cato, a Brutus, an Agrippa, “A Farmer” and others decided to voice their own point of view. Eighty five Federalist essays were written under the name of Publius, with as many as four thoughtful pieces being produced on a weekly basis. Those rugged individualists, the unorganized anti-federalists couldn’t match it, and while New York only ratified the constitution after the required nine states, they did ratify, and the essays of Madison, Hamilton and Jay were picked up and widely circulated. These essays were central to the debate everywhere.
Apart from the weaknesses and flaws of the original “league of friendship,” Shay’s rebellion, which was finally put down only after seven months and some thousand arrests, illustrated the perils of unbridled individualism championed by those in favor of retaining the loose structure of the Articles of Confederation, and was much on the minds of the fifty five delegates who attended the convention in Philadelphia in the spring of 1787. The issue of taxation was paramount. The public debt was a concern. Regulating commerce was as well. It is a weakness of our national debate that it takes place in a political venue rather than a managerial context, illustrated today once again by Lindsay Graham this morning: the most often repeated phrase uttered by Lindsay Graham this morning was, “Obama’s Health Plan.”
That’s not a point made in an honest policy debate, but a political one made to pin blame. Sadly, this is nothing new.