Compromise

I once heard it said that history is one of the subjects you study after you know everything else. Well, I don’t know everything else — and not as much history as I would like. But I do find myself captivated by studies in-depth of the goings-on many years ago — especially during the founding of this nation. As a consequence, I have been reading a good bit of American history of late.

One of the better books I have come across is Gary Wills’ Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. I have not finished the book yet, but I have already learned some things I did not know.

I did not know, for example, that Samuel Adams (cousin of John) was a bit of a sleeze-ball. He would fit in nicely with today’s politicians since he liked to slink about and make deals behind closed doors. He kept a very low profile, not making speeches or drawing attention to himself while he plotted with like-minded radicals to help bring about independence from England. (One must wonder about his motivation.) He also apparently manipulated his cousin and John was only too happy to comply as he saw Samuel through rose-colored glasses. But he did get things done. Like the Boston Tea Party.

There is not much known about the folks involved in that event, but there is fairly sound evidence that Sam Adams was one of the major players — if not the one who initiated the event in which ninety thousand pounds of tea was thrown into the Boston harbor to protest the tea tax. No sooner was the event completed then Samuel  “went immediately to work spreading his version of the incident” (as he himself admitted later). This is what he did: he spread word — including “false facts” (as we now call them) and huge exaggerations — coining the term “massacre” later on to describe the shooting of “several” people in Boston. Both Sam and John were frustrated that the other colonies were not paying close attention to what was going on in Boston and Sam saw it as his job to spread the word — true or not.  He was Machiavellian to the core, committed to the notion that the end justifies the means.

I was also surprised to hear that the various colonies were completely separate and distinct political entities — each with its own charter with the King and even separate constitutions — not to say coinage in many cases. In fact, they thought of themselves as separate countries — like those in Europe. Separate and distinct. John Adams said they spoke different languages and each colony had its own culture. When it was time for representatives of the thirteen colonies to meet in Philadelphia for a second time they appeared, but there was still an undercurrent of distrust. After all, these men were planning the separation from the most powerful country on earth and they would be regarded as traitors, or at the very least rebels (which is what the English called them). They worried that among them there would be spies who would go to the authorities and reveal who was involved and what their plans were.  They were risking their lives and had to find ways to trust people who were in every sense of the word foreign to them.  So deep was the distrust of one colony for another during the first Continental Congress that one delegate from New York told John Adams:

“If England were to cast us adrift, we should instantly go to civil wars among ourselves to determine which colony should govern all the rest.”

It is one of the wonders of the eighteenth century that those thirteen colonies were able to cooperate enough to fight against the much more powerful England, not to say fight successfully. This was a fight they would not have won, of course, without the assistance of France who supplied them with gun powder, weapons, and eventually naval power. The French hated the English and were only too happy to help anyone who was willing take them on! But, still, England at the time ruled the world.

In the end, despite the distrust and perhaps with the help of the machinations of people like Samuel Adams, the colonists did cooperate because they realized that compromise was essential to their cause. The Southern states would not hear any talk about abolition of slavery and the North was peopled by hundreds of abolitionists and generally tended to think they were superior to all the other colonies. But they were willing to compromise, to come together in a common cause and unite such disparate elements into one union — which Lincoln later struggled desperately to hold together.

How alike we are as individuals; the descendants of Samuel Adams can be found slinking about Washington D.C. today — even occupying positions of great power. And yet we have forgotten how to compromise, to cooperate with one another in order to bring about what is best for the nation and its people.

Obligations of the Wealthy

It is always instructive and even at times interesting (or even painful) to take a look at ourselves through the eyes of those who live on the other side of the pond. These days one can only shudder to think what the impression must be, but I shall avoid that in order to retain some semblance of my sanity — what is left of it.

In any event, in 1877 British Prime Minister William E. Gladstone took a careful look at what was going on in America — an America that Alexis de Tocqueville had previously examined under the microscope. He did not like what he saw. Considering the fact at the time that Cornelius Vanderbilt had just left his son $100 million Gladstone worried that

“Wealth on so grand a scale ought not to exist accompanied by no ‘obligation to society.'”

Gladstone thought that the government should take great wealth away from the wealthy and redistribute it if the wealthy did not take part in governing the country. That, of course, has not happened. In fact in the nineteenth century we have examples of such worthies as John D. Rockerfeller, Vanderbilt, and Andrew Carnegie who amassed huge wealth and yet never participated in any way in the political arena. It appeared as though the wealthy worried more about their wealth than they did the fate of their nation. That seems to have set the tone for the country in the years that have followed.

What makes this of particular interest, of course, is that as the nation was aborning the Federalists, led by such men as Alexander Hamilton, sought to establish the wealthy at the head of the nation in positions of great power and influence. Some of the Founders, such as Hamilton and even Washington to a degree, regarded the wealthy as the closest thing we had to an aristocracy. The Senate would be peopled by the wealthy as a faint echo of the English House of Lords. They were convinced (as was Plato after seeing what a jury did to his beloved Socrates) that ordinary men and women would run the ship of state aground. The wealthy and the “well born” as Hamilton saw it were in a better position to know what was best for the “general good,” while the rest of the common folk were busy trying to make ends meet. Strange to say, a great many people agreed with Hamilton and the other Federalists — enough at any rate to ratify the Constitution which was written is such a way as to make sure that ordinary folks would be separated as far as possible from the seat of government.

Gladstone’s concern is especially interesting not because his observation flew directly into the face of what the founders had intended — namely, that the wealthy and well educated would rule the nation — but that it proved to be prescient. As things stand today, the very wealthy avoid public office — with a few notable exceptions — while they and their companies maintain a tight grip behind the scenes on the power that politics promises them, the financial avenues those they have chosen to rule open for them. I speak of the corporations which, thanks to the abortive Supreme Court decision regarding “Citizens United,” have considerable influence on who it is who runs the country and which direction it will take.

In a way my concern here dovetails with a more general concern I have voiced from time to time on these pages about the “obligation” the wealthy have to those around them. Some notable exceptions can be allowed, but by and large wealthy individuals tend to worry more about their portfolios than they do about the plight of those around them who, in many cases, do not have enough food to eat or a place to call their home.

But the general point that John Murrin makes in his book Rethinking America — from which my references to Gladstone arise — cannot be ignored and does make us pause:

“In a capitalist society that generates huge extremes of wealth and want, democracy is ever at risk. . . .The pursuit of wealth without regard to the public good not only corrupts individuals. It threatens to destroy independence and the American republic.”

Indeed so. Those who have are obliged to concern themselves with those who have not: the more they have the greater the obligation. And the very wealthy have an obligation to others and to the nation that extends beyond simply promoting those laws that enhance their opportunity to become even more wealthy. Gladstone was right to be concerned.

Our Great Country

We hear a good deal of late about making our country “great” again. But we hear very little about what that might entail. Just what is “greatness” when it comes to nations, anyway? If Honoré de Balzac is to be believed, it is the principles, the things the people of that nation hold dear, that makes nations great. We might also call them “virtues,” to use a much neglected word. And if we are to make America great again I would assume that this means determining what the principles, or virtues, were that were prevalent at the founding of this country and attempting to restore them to life. According to American historian Clinton Rossiter in his book Seedtime of The Republic those principles prevalent at the founding of this nation were such things as industry, frugality, humility, piety, charity, honesty, love of liberty, self-reliance, courage, and community spirit — what Rossiter called “that special American blend.”

Henry Steele Commager, another American historian, was asked when this country celebrated its bicentennial if he could put his finger on the one thing that differentiated the country in 1996 from the country in 1776 and he said it was the deeply felt concern of the citizens in 1776 with the future, with future generations. In 1996 we were preoccupied with today. I will develop this theme in a bit, but at this point I would like to quote from a letter written in 1775 by the Rev. William Smith that provides broader perspective on the mind-set of so many of his countrymen in that era:

“Look back, therefore, with reverence look back to the times of ancient virtue and renown. Look back to the mighty purposes which your fathers had in view when they traversed a mighty ocean and planted this land. Recall to your minds their labors, their toils, their perseverance, and let their divine spirit animate you in all your actions.

“Look forward to a distant posterity. . . Think that on you may depend whether this great country, in ages hence, shall be filled and adorned with a virtuous and enlightened people; enjoying liberty and all its concomitant blessings . . . or covered with a race of men more contemptible than the savages that roam the wilderness.”

Now, putting aside his use of the politically incorrect term “savages,” and ignoring, if we can, the attempts that followed to eradicate native people from this continent, we might learn something about what it was that made this country great at the time it was experiencing the growing pains that accompany the founding of a great nation. We can do no better than to reflect on the list that Rossiter provided us with, the “special American blend.”

And what, we might ask, to follow-up on the hints that Commager gave us more than thirty years ago, would characterize America in our day? I would suggest that the qualities that define us today — I hesitate to call them “principles” or much less “virtues” —  are such things as a predominant materialism, concern for physical comfort, competitiveness, desire for success (measured in dollars), conformity, physical activity, efficiency, mastery of the world around us, pragmatism, and a fixation on “progress” and profits. And to make the point with emphasis, two years ago those electors who elect politicians determined that the man who embodied those qualities was to be elected to the highest office in the land, a man who embodied those qualities that characterize themselves.

In a word, if we are to make this country great again, we chose the wrong leader. But it will take more than the right leader to turn the tide that is sweeping this country today and return us to a time when things were as they appeared and people looked beyond themselves — a time when “civic virtue” was something all (or most) embraced wholeheartedly as they looked to the future.

 

One Disturbed Texan

You really have to admire Steve Stockman’s enthusiasm even though you might want to question his knowledge of American history and the Constitution. Steve is a recently elected Republican member of the House of Representatives from the great state of Texas — you remember Texas? It wanted to secede from the Union after Barack Obama was reelected to the Presidency. The White House was required to respond to the petition and they said “No.” Pity! In any event now Steve wants to impeach the President because he has suggested that he might want to evoke executive privilege to curb violence in this country.

The story begins with Steve’s rant against the president’s outrageous suggestion:

“I will seek to thwart this action by any means necessary, including but not limited to eliminating funding for implementation, defunding the White House, and even filing articles of impeachment,” Stockman pledged. “The president’s actions are an existential threat to this nation. The right of the people to keep and bear arms is what has kept this nation free and secure for over 200 years. The very purpose of the Second Amendment is to stop the government from disallowing people the means to defend themselves against tyranny. Any proposal to abuse executive power and infringe upon gun rights must be repelled with the stiffest legislative force possible.”

Let’s take this slowly, pausing for breath — which is a pause Mr. Stockman apparently forgot to take. The President’s actions are said to be an “existential threat to this nation.” What, precisely, does that mean? It sounds like it might have come from Sartre or one of the other beat thinkers in the 1950s, but I doubt that Steve ever read those folks. He apparently hasn’t read his history either. In any event, I gather Steve thinks the country is endangered by the President’s threat to evoke executive privilege. He must be unaware that whatever steps President Obama takes to curb the violence in this country will be very small indeed, since it will require legislation to take giant steps and the Congress is the legislative body in this country — and not likely to do much of anything about gun control.

It’s not at all clear from what history I have read that the Second Amendment — which was adopted in 1791, fifteen years after the Declaration of Independence was adopted and almost ten years after the end of the revolutionary war — has been instrumental in “keeping this nation free for nearly 200 years.” I would have thought it was the Army, Navy, and Marines that did that, fighting wars on foreign soil with the loss of thousands of American lives, and not the militia at home with their muskets as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.

It is true that the Founders were concerned about tyranny, but they saw that danger coming from across the pond, not from the head of our government here on this continent. And it is not clear how this president, or any president for that matter, could become a tyrant given the checks and balances that have been written into the Constitution. In fact, if you look at the list of nineteen things the president might do to curb violence in this country after the massacre at Sandy Hook, they seem fairly innocuous — and largely ineffective I dare say. And the President hasn’t even said he would take any of those steps. Steve seems to be overreacting.

One of the few steps the NRA and its Republican supporters are in favor of in the way of reducing violence in this country is better mental health coverage. This is an excellent idea and it is certainly something that people like Representative Stockman will want to take advantage of at their earliest convenience.