New Perspectives

In reading John Murrin’s new book, Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic, I was struck by the deep divisions that separated the original thirteen colonies and made the uniting of those disparate entitles almost impossible. I have always thought it was simple: England abused the colonies; they united and threw off the weight of the Empire. As Murrin points out, however, deep divisions among the colonies existed before the revolution broke out and persisted long after the war was over — eventually leading to the Civil War.  At one point the New England states threatened to separate themselves from the rest and establish their own identity. And the South was never happy about joining the North where, they thought, abiding loyalties to the English king persisted and a determination to end slavery would cripple the economy of the South.  The adoption of the Constitution was not a matter of course; it was a struggle:

“[By 1787] the only alternative to the Constitution was disunion.”

This remained a real possibility during that turbulent period as the aforementioned interests of the New England states differed almost completely from those of the deep South. And the Middle States wavered back and forth between Federalism, following Alexander Hamilton, and Republicanism, following Thomas Jefferson. There were, throughout the period, many who remained loyal to England and, indeed, most Americans at the time regarded themselves as English citizens — even after the revolution. As Mullin presents his case, it is remarkable that the colonies were ever able to unite enough to carry off the war, much less adopt a Constitution that would unite such diverse entities. But the Stamp Act, together with the Boston Massacre, in addition to a series of political blinders on the part of the English parliament, persuaded enough people in this country that separation from England was the only way to go. And, after the revolution, strength lay in a united states of America, not separate colonies or states. But, almost without exception, the colonists did not want a strong central government. They wanted their independence and minimal interference with their lives. Murrin describes the struggles in detail, and they were immense.

What I found particularly interesting was the widespread distrust at the time of the people, the common clay, along with the difficulties connected with the ratification of the Constitution itself — regarded by many historians as an “elitist” document, full of compromises and exhibiting the aforementioned distrust — as in the case of the notion of representation restricted to

“one for every thirty thousand people (a figure about twice the size of contemporary Boston) . . . . . [This was a document] designed to secure government by ‘the wise, the rich, and the good.’ Only socially prominent men could expect to be visible enough over that large an area to win elections, and they might well get help from one another. . .”

It is fairly well known that a great many people, loyal to the English, fled this country and headed for Canada during the revolution. In fact, my wife’s ancestors were among them — while one of my ancestors fought alongside Washington and died at the battle of Princeton. (It has not caused problems in our marriage you’ll be happy to know!) What is not so generally known is that a great many people who remained behind during those years were loyal to the English and played a role in the revolution itself — spying for the English and making secrecy in Washington’s tactics nearly impossible. More than one-third of the population of New Jersey, for example, was fiercely loyalist during the revolution. One wonders how on earth the colonists pulled off the victory at Trenton after crossing the Delaware — given the presence of so many who would have gladly told of the movements of the militias.

Alexander Meiklejohn once said that people should read history after they know everything else. I know what he meant, but I disagree. History is fascinating and important. And in an age that is self and present-oriented and inclined to dismiss history as “yesterday’s news,” an age in which history has been jettisoned from college curricula across this land, it becomes even more important, especially for those who know nothing. We learn how to act today by reading about the mistakes we made in the past — just as the young learn from their parent’s mistakes. But, like the young, we think we know better. We think that ours is a unique experience and nothing the old folks have to say has any bearing on what is going on our life.

It may have been best said by the ancient historian  Diodorus of Agyrium in 85 B.C. (surely you have heard of him?) when he noted that

“History is able to instruct without inflicting pain by affording an insight into the failures and successes of others. . . History surpasses individual experience in value in proportion to its conspicuous superiority in scope and content.”

The kids are wrong: we can learn from others. We had better.

 

 

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Submerged Concern

I recently discussed a Reuters poll that showed that more than 60% of Americans of all political stripes would like to see the E.P.A. maintain its present strength or increase it to help protect the environment. Indeed, polls have shown for years that Americans are concerned about the environment, a concern that usually appears among the top ten with astonishing consistency. And yet, as I have noted, when it comes to electing our representatives to Congress we tend to ignore their stand on the environment and show a much greater concern for such things as terrorism, defense, and the economy.  This has been a pattern for many years and it requires some explaining.

I’m not sure I can provide that explanation, but I can speculate — a thing I tend to be fairly good at, since it requires little research. I am guessing that the concern over the environment is indeed genuine. I don’t question it at all. But it is what I would call a “submerged concern.” That is, it’s there, but it doesn’t surface in any meaningful way. It will surface, of course, when we can no longer drink the water, breathe the air, or are forced to pay two week’s salary for groceries.  But until then, since it is not as pressing for most folks as, say, being able to make the payment on the new SUV, it will remain submerged.

Much of our tendency to keep the concern submerged is fear, of course. None of us wants to think about the dire consequences of continued attacks on the earth which supports us and the air that we require. And none of us wants to make sacrifices. God forbid that we should drive more economical cars and grab a sweater when we are chilly rather than turning up the thermostat! But some of it, at least, is due to our unreasonable conviction that no matter how great the problem someone will solve it. We have blind faith in science — while at the same time we question the veracity of the scientists who tell us that we are destroying the planet. (No one said folks worry about such things as consistency — the minds of so many of us resembling in many ways a rat’s nest of confused bits and pieces of truth, half-truth, and blatant falsehoods — all of which are bound together by wishful thinking. It’s the only kind of thinking a great many people are capable of, sad to say.)

In any event, we are faced with the undeniable fact that a great many people in this society repeatedly elect to Congress men and women who are paid to vote for Big Oil and whose reelection depends on continuing to support programs and people who are hell-bent on taking as much plunder out of the earth as humanly possible and leaving it to future generations to clean up the mess — while they gasp for air and drink Kool-Aid made up of reconditioned toilet water, presumably. We fault those folks in Congress, as we should. They really should put the well-being of their constituents before their own political party and their own re-election. But, judging form the past, this will not happen as long as the cushy jobs in Washington pay well (and the representatives see to that) and the voters are stupid enough to keep them in office. And the fault that this is allowed to happen is our own.

The founders made it clear that the idea was to rotate the representatives every couple of years so there would be new blood and new ideas. George Washington was smart enough to know that the President, at least, should have term limits. At that time the jobs didn’t pay very well and involved a lot of work for men who had more important things to get back to at home. But slowly and surely representation in Congress turned into a full-time, high-paying  job and those in office found that they were making huge piles of money and really preferred to keep things that way. Voting for clean energy and against Big Oil simply doesn’t fit into that scheme. This is why there should be term-limits, of course, but more importantly, it is why we should vote out of office those whose only concern is for themselves and their own well-being. What will it take to wake enough people up to the very real dangers we all face in the not-so-distant future? That is the question!

The Relevance of Thomas Paine

I have been reading Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” about which Wikipedia has this to tell us:

Thomas Paine has a claim to the title The Father of the American Revolution,which rests on his pamphlets, especially “Common Sense,” which crystallized sentiment for independence in 1776. It was published in Philadelphia on January 10, 1776 and signed anonymously “by an Englishman.” It became an immediate success, quickly spreading 100,000 copies in three months to the two million residents of the 13 colonies. In all about 500,000 copies total including unauthorized editions were sold during the course of the Revolution.

The pamphlet came into circulation in January 1776, after the Revolution had started. It was passed around, and often read aloud in taverns, contributing significantly to spreading the idea of republicanism, bolstering enthusiasm for separation from Britain, and encouraging recruitment for the Continental Army. Paine provided a new and convincing argument for independence by advocating a complete break with history. Common Sense is oriented to the future in a way that compels the reader to make an immediate choice. It offers a solution for Americans disgusted with and alarmed at the threat of tyranny.

Paine was determined to get the colonies to unite and especially to write a constitution. He felt that as long as the colonies were “lawless” they were subject to usurpation by a despot who would be king. As he himself says:

A government of our own is our natural right: And when a man seriously reflected on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced that it is infinitely wiser and safer to form a constitution of our own in a cool and deliberate manner, while we have it in our power, than to trust such an interesting event to time and chance. If we omit it now some [opportunist] may hereafter arise who, laying hold of popular disquietudes, may collect together the desperate and the discontented, and by assuming to themselves the powers of government, may sweep away the liberties of the continent like a deluge.

Now, while the minions who blindly follow today’s popular would-be-despot can hardly be described as merely “desperate and discontented,” they are certainly ready to follow the man who would be king. I would describe the minions in stronger terms than did Paine, but we get the picture. When men and women are “desperate and discontented” they are subject to the lure and promises of anyone who presents himself as the one WITH THE ANSWERS, who knows all, and who will sweep away the corruption he sees all around him and RESTORE this country to greatness — the greatness that followed upon the American Revolution, perhaps.

But, as Paine was careful to point out, the only king this country could possibly allow and remain free is the constitution, a body of laws that would make it possible for the citizens to protect their property and retain their freedom. They never looked to one man to deliver them from England and protect their property and freedoms, though they held George Washington in very high regard. He himself realized the dangers of allowing the executive in the new constitution to have too much power and he was, by all reports, a very restrained president.

The irony of the parallel I seek to draw here is that the man who would be king appears to be ignorant of the constitution (one of his first acts as president, he says, would be to jail “corrupt Hillary”) and to place himself in the place of that constitution as a law unto himself. But the truly sad thing is that his minions actually appear to believe that he can do just that and they are ready to support him and follow him wherever he leads. They desperately need to read history and take a course in civics to see how things are supposed to work in a republic defined by the balance of power.

This country is founded on the principle that no one person will have the power to determine the course of the country. The constitution is law and it rules in place of a king. The coming election will see this principle sorely tested and my hope is that we are the people that the founders hoped would make this country strong enough to reject tyranny and despotism no matter what form it might take.

The Power of the President

I want to develop an idea I mentioned in passing in an earlier post. It has to do with the limited power of the President and the absurd promises our presidential candidates make about what they will do when elected — given the fact that by themselves they cannot do very much at all. Witness Barack Obama’s pathetic attempts to promote some sort of gun control.

Our Constitution borrows from the pages of Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws in dividing power among the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial. Limiting power was a prime concern among political thinkers in the age of Enlightenment as they sought to wean themselves from the whims of various corrupt Monarchs. If one reads our Constitution one immediately realizes that Congress is the main body in the thinking of those who wrote and later adopted that document. The very first Article in the document deals with legislative powers. There are ten Sections in that Article. On the other hand, there are only four Sections in the Article dealing with the limited powers of the President. Most of them stress the need for the legislative body to “advise and consent” or the manner of election and impeachment of the president. Clearly, those men were worried that they might be creating another monarch. And this they did not want — even with George Washington ready at hand.

The ten sections under Article One describing the powers of the legislative body are detailed and extensive. They go on for pages and outline a body that not only manages the purse strings, but also has the capacity to control the excessive urge to power of any president. And if those latter restraints are insufficient there is always the Supreme Court that further limits the President who might wish to get too big for his or her britches. The document is all about limiting power because these men knew better than anyone how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton once said.  And the reason these men put so much faith in the legislative branch is because they were convinced that those elected would represent the will of the body politic. In the small country at that time they envisioned the representatives serving with little remuneration for a very short time and in that time visiting their constituents on a regular basis and merely parroting the wishes of those who voted them into office. If the representatives varied too much from the will of the voters, they would be voted out. That was a given at the time, as is clear from the Federalist Papers.

We have seen how this hasn’t worked out, of course, with no term limits on those elected to Congress and huge salaries now attached to political offices. Men and women get into office and their primary urge is to remain there as long as possible. They don’t give a hoot for the needs of their constituents, since they answer only to the wealthy persons whose money can guarantee them a long term in office. The founders never saw it coming.

This is why, in the end, when we are thinking about which political candidate might make a good president we should be thinking about which candidate could work most effectively with a Congress that holds the purse strings and which is the seat of power in this country. Personally, I think Bernie Sanders stands out above the rest of the presidential candidates, because he has the best sense of what would be good for his country and is willing to take on the powers that be. He realizes, as the rest of the candidates do not, that the real contest in this country is not between the Republicans and the Democrats but between the corporations that would take all the power and the people who are supposed to have it. But, the question is, can he work effectively with what has become a recalcitrant (for want of a better word) Congress tied to the wealthy by their purse strings?  I suspect not, sad to say. I suspect he is regarded as an outsider and would find himself running in place — unless by some miracle the voters manage to alter the make-up of the Congress and give him enough legislators to work with.

That, it seems to me, is the main question.

The Militia

I have mentioned a number of times in earlier posts that the Second Amendment is all about the militia — not about our right to carry guns. It’s clear from the way the amendment is stated that maintaining a militia is of central importance. It’s because the Founders insisted that each state have a militia and that there never be a standing army that they saw fit to mention the “right” to bear arms. Consider, for example, the following Article in the Constitution itself.

In the very first Article (Section 8) we are told that the Congress shall have the power, among other things, to

“. . .provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions; To provide for the organizing, arming and disciplining the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.”

The concern here, clearly is to guarantee that the states will severally maintain an armed Militia, that there might never be a standing army. When it came time to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania during George Washington’s first term as President, for example, he himself led a group of state militia Westwards. There was no standing army, though Alexander Hamilton worried that the new country might eventually need one. Moreover, the Second Article in the Constitution  that outlines the very limited powers of the President tells us that:

“The President shall be Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States [which were non-existent!], and of the Militia of the several states when called into actual Service of the United States. . .”

Indeed, what is clear from reading the Constitution is that those who wrote and passed on it were primarily concerned that the states would retain power over their own affairs and the Union would intercede only when absolutely necessary. At the same time, given Washington’s difficulties maintaining his army during the Revolution, there is concern that the Militia when called upon  be trained “according to the discipline prescribed by Congress” — i.e., by someone who knew what he was doing. It was assumed that the Congress would appoint someone with experience to initiate the actual training. There is, throughout the document, a concern for what is referred to in the Preamble as “the general Welfare,” or what those men regard as the Common Good, balanced by the determination not to allow the Union to lord it over the several states.

The President, as mentioned above, was to be more or less a figurehead. He is not Dictator as some who are currently running for that office apparently believe: his hands are tied tightly. The Congress, for better or worse (and we are seeing examples of the latter every day) holds the ultimate power. The President, as chief executive officer, has the power to execute the laws, not to make them. But, more to the point, the “right” to carry weapons mentioned in the Second Amendment was predicated on the need for a Militia to protect both the individual states and, if necessary, the Union. And, as the very conservative President Reagan said years ago, it does not rule out hunting weapons, but it also most assuredly does not guarantee every citizen the right to carry “AK-47s,  machine guns.”

How Democracy Works

In a delightful piece of writing from Ireland in response to Bill O’Reilly’s threat to move there if Bernie Sanders were to be elected president, we read that:

The ultra-conservative uh… you could say “news”… channel has hosted O’Reilly’s programme for several years and turned Bill O’Reilly into a household name in the States. He’s now become a byword for blow-hard, over-the-top Republican commentators that basically shout until they get their way. Like children. . ..
Anyway, during a recent segment in his programme about Democrat hopeful Bernie Sanders’ healthcare plan, Bill O’Reilly made a statement that sent fear into the hearts of Irish men and women. “If Bernie Sanders gets elected president, I’m fleeing, I’m going to Ireland. And they already know it.”
Of course, he’s going to love it here. What with our ridiculously strict gun control, marriage equality, the Medical Card system and social healthcare, O’Reilly’s going to have great craic in Ireland.

I had wondered if Ireland would welcome the Mouth That Roars with open arms when I first read of O’Reilly’s threat (promise?). This piece answers my question. But it raises another.

The heart and soul of a democracy, which Bill O’Reilly apparently cannot fathom, rests on the subordination one’s will to the will of the majority. Much like drawing straws, if I am willing to play the game I must abide by the results. I cannot vote, let us say, in a presidential election and then refuse to abide by the decision of the electorate if the election goes the “wrong” way. But so many people echo O’Reilly’s words almost daily. I admit I find myself saying such things: if the Trumpet wins I am moving to Canada. I really can’t do that. Not if I am willing to play the game to begin with. The (ethical) rules require that we abide by the decision of the group otherwise we shouldn’t participate. That’s the strength, and weakness, of a democratic process.

It astounds me how ignorant our leaders are of our democratic system and the constitution. I have spoken many times about the misreading of the Second Amendment,and I have posted in the past about the ignorance of at least one Congressman of the notion of the Common Good, which runs throughout the Constitution. Indeed, one does wonder how these men and women can pledge themselves to serve the United States Constitution if they never read it! They are supposed to be the best of the rest of us when they clearly are not. I do wonder, moreover, how many of them cannot distinguish between freedom and free enterprise and between democracy and capitalism.

In any event, one does wish that those who shout the loudest would take a moment to reflect on the nature of the political process they insist they defend. A Democracy cannot be run by a small percentage of the wealthiest citizens any more than a Monarchy can be run by the population at large. And, as the Founders knew so well, the democratic process demands a literate and well-informed electorate and open discussion of any and all political issues. It cannot descend to the level of special interests and shouting matches. If one simply reads the words of those, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who worried in the late eighteenth century about the future of this democracy, one would realize that we have become precisely what they feared we would. The fundamental condition they knew was essential, the education of those who elect the chosen few, has never been realized.

Bill O’Reilly, and his friend the Trumpet, is nothing less than a symptom of what has gone wrong.

 

 

The Trumpet Blares

I swore I was not going to blog about the Trumpet that plays off-key, but when he refused recently to correct one of the zanies in his audience who insisted that Barack Obama is a Muslim and THEN went on to say he would not “defend ” Obama by correcting such people, one must raise his voice in loud protest.

In what universe is correcting a blatant falsehood a “defense” of the person wrongly accused? It is simply a matter of common decency to set things straight, especially when it’s a gross insult based on twisted thinking. But, of course, Donald The Trumpet is a stranger to common decency.

One is reminded of John McCain politely correcting a woman in his audience who misspoke when referring to Obama’s supposed religious affiliation. Again, it is the decent thing to do and clearly McCain is a decent person. The Trumpet is not. He is a loud, misogynistic egoist who gets off on hearing his own name and is lost among visions of grandeur that are way beyond his meager talents.

The perplexing question, of course, is why this man has any following at all, much less one large enough to put him ahead in the race for the highest office in the land. The simple answer, which a number of folks have suggested, is that voters are sick and tired of politics as usual (I know I am) and want something fresh and new. But this man is not a breath of fresh air, he is a blowhard. And the fact that anyone would take him seriously deserves serious reflection by anyone who truly cares about the survival of this democratic system. The Founders never had this scenario in mind — in their willdest nightmares. They were convinced that the best and brightest would rise to the top like cream in milk. The key, of course, was (and is)  education — which is why Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. They envisioned — or many of them did — a natural aristocracy, not one predicated on wealth, but one predicated on intelligence, ability, vision, and courage. Very few of today’s candidates exhibit these traits, and one must look far and wide to find anyone who might in fact do so.

I am convinced that this is a mark of the failure of the education system in this country coupled with the fact that parents are too preoccupied with making a living to pay close attention to their children who are then left to the wiles of entertainers, day-care, and teachers. While entertainers are hugely overpaid, day-care providers and teachers are not trained to do the jobs they are forced to do — and are not paid anywhere near as much and their job requires. In fact, teachers, especially, are today held in low esteem by a culture that puts the highest value on those who make the largest income. Teachers make very little, ergo they are not worth taking seriously. It’s simple logic, or logic for the simple-minded.

This might explain why the very wealthy Donald Trump is striking a responsive chord in the hearts of so many people in this country: they simply don’t know any better. They cannot differentiate between fact and fiction; they cannot spot the fool that mouths false platitudes; they cannot see beneath the surface; and they cannot  make intelligent choices.

The founders weren’t wrong: democracy requires an educated citizenry. While George Washington did worry, on the whole the Founders failed to see that their democratic system would flounder because so many of its citizens are, in fact, uneducated and even stupid. The condition that was necessary for this republic to succeed has failed to bear fruit and the system has been turned over to the image makers and the wealthy who have enough money to buy themselves a government. This is not what Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Monroe had in mind. Not by a long shot.

And So It Begins

A recent story about the ripple effect of Elizabeth Warren’s attacks on Big Banks in this country that are making huge profits with the support of the government that bails them out every time they stumble or bumble raises some interesting points. It begins with the following two paragraphs:

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Big Wall Street banks are so upset with Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren’s call for them to be broken up that some have discussed withholding campaign donations to Senate Democrats in symbolic protest, sources familiar with the discussions said.

Representatives from Citigroup, J..P.Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, have met to discuss ways to urge Democrats, including Warren and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, to soften their party’s tone toward Wall Street, sources familiar with the discussions said this week.

This gambit is not new, of course, but there are a number of facets to this version that strike the interested reader. To begin with there is the given that the large corporations, including in this case the Big Banks, are throwing money at political candidates on both sides of the political aisle in order to be able to threaten to take it away if they don’t march to the tune the corporations have chosen to play. This is the way the game is played, as the NRA has shown for many years in order to guarantee that Americans continue to buy and use guns in the name of the Second Amendment — which most of those who clutch copies of the Constitution in one hand and an assault weapon in the other have never read and certainly don’t understand. Money talks and large money talks loud. The Koch Brothers have leaped on this train with both feet and threaten to determine its course for the next decade, at least.

But Warren is a woman of courage who now looks like a possible candidate for the highest office in the land so the stakes are very high and the Big Banks have started to plot their strategy. Perhaps you have heard the talk about how she “has it in” for the Banks because they foreclosed on her father’s home when she was a child. As they tell the story, this makes her a nut-case who is just out to get revenge. It implies that the Banks are squeaky clean and have done no wrong. But we know this not to be the case and wait and watch to see what new smear tactic they will employ while they see whether the threat to withhold money from influential Senators will get her off their backs and halt her campaign before it can get off the ground.

It’s dirty politics, or politics as usual if you prefer. And it works. It is especially gnawing to those who have read their history and know how worried the founders were about the influence of Big Money on politics. They knew that allowing money to accrue in the hands of a few would give them immense power: virtually all of the colonies instituted laws to fight against primogeniture. For example, George Washington did not inherit his father’s estate, including Mount Vernon, until his older brother died. And folks like Jefferson regaled the glories of the agrarian ideal, folks on their farms working the land, close to nature, or working at their jobs and maintaining the virtues of their forefathers. Jefferson, in particular, worried that “a rich country cannot long be a free one,” because men and women would be caught up in the making of money and ignore the “common good.” But, for all their concern about the abuses of power, the framers ignored the threat of great wealth when it came to writing the Constitution, sad to say, and we are paying the price. Or, more to the point, good people who want to do the right thing like Elizabeth Warren are paying the price. Hold on to your hats, it’s going to get ugly!

Constitutional Oversights

I have blogged in the past about the failures of the authors of the U.S. Constitution to anticipate the immense power of great wealth in this country which has resulted in the present shut-down in government — following directly from the obedience of our elected officials to those who have provided the bulk of the immense amounts of money required to place them in office. This, of course, results in allegiance to those to whom much is owed and to the Party they support, making cooperation with those across the aisle nearly impossible.  These things were not, indeed they could not have been, anticipated by the authors of our Constitution writing in the eighteenth century.

At a time when the U.S. Senate was not elected but appointed by state legislatures, often at the beck and call of vested interests, Henry Adams hoped that President Grant would initiate steps to remedy at least one shortcoming of the Constitution; namely, the extraordinary power vested in a Senate that was not responsive to the electorate. This resulted in a corrupt Senate with considerable power coupled with the inability of the executive to get much of anything done, a problem that persists to this day. Adams was disappointed, and the improvements he hoped for in the Constitution never came to fruition. Indeed, despite the addition of a few amendments from time to time, the possibility of opening serious discussion about the revisions necessary in what has become a sacred, albeit dated, document have never been seriously considered. In fact, the mention of even minor changes to that document strikes many as heresy.

Now, when one goes back and reads the statements of those closely connected with the writing of our Constitution one realizes that they themselves thought that the document would be updated and improved from time to time as a matter of course. It was never regarded as written in stone. One merely has to read the Federalist Papers written by Madison, Hamilton, and John Jay to persuade New York to ratify the document, to realize how open to suggestion and change were those who first conjured up the document which was, at the time, designed to keep the colonies together (by allowing such things as slavery, for example) and mitigate against the separatism that was beginning to tear them apart soon after the revolution. One especially concerned spectator who worried that Europe would get the last laugh, and who was determined to prove that the Republic would hold together despite this factionalism, was George Washington who presided over the Constitutional Convention for the four months during which the Constitution was written. He penned a most interesting document to his friend Lafayette, lauding the document and pointing out its merits.

“First, that the general government is not invested with more powers than are indispensably necessary to perform the functions of a good government, and consequently, that no objection ought to be made against the quantity of power delegated to it.

“Secondly, that these powers, as the appointment of all rulers will for ever arise from and, at short, stated intervals recur, to the free suffrages of the people, are so distributed among the legislative, judicial, and executive branches into which the general government is arranged, that it can never be in danger of degenerating into a monarchy, an oligarchy, an aristocracy, or any other despotic or oppressive form so long as there shall remain any virtue in the body of the people.”

Fascinating! What jumps out, of course, is his preoccupation with the limits of governmental power coupled with the presumption, which Washington shared with most of those who helped put the document together, that citizens would act “virtuously” — which was an Enlightenment notion that focused on what was regarded as the natural desire of civilized people to live together, to put the common good above their own private good.  This strikes us today as incredibly naive. But, as Washington saw it, along with brief terms in political office, civic virtue was a necessary condition if the country was to avoid “despotism.”

And it is precisely despotism that has replaced the Republic that the founders had in mind. Whether it was because of the disappearance of civic virtue or the rise of incredible wealth in the hands of a few unscrupulous, greedy men and giant corporations is a moot point. I suspect it is a combination of the two. After all, what is the citizen supposed to do about choosing enlightened leadership when those with great wealth hand-pick politicians who will carry out their own private agendas?

Clearly, as I have noted in previous posts, what we now have in an oligarchy, and it is precisely the type of thing the founders were convinced they had guarded against. A radical alteration of the Constitution curtailing the influence on the wealthy on elections might restore this country to a Republic, but this will never happen as long as those who might engineer those changes see them as threatening their own power and prestige. Washington’s supposition, shared with the authors of the Federalist Papers, that politicians would serve short terms has also given way to career politicians who hold their offices interminably (literally) and, in order to assure themselves of a continuance in office, simply carry out the programs set out for them by those wealthy few who have had them elected and will keep them in office. Thus, while the time is long overdue for radically rethinking the Constitution, it will not happen. Even a necessary first step, such as the adoption of an amendment reversing the Supreme Court’s abortive decision in the Citizen’s United case giving corporations unlimited access to the reins of government, is extremely unlikely. It’s a Catch 22.

 

Hate Breeds Hate

We have read often about the terrible conditions undergone by the American rag-tag army as it endured the freezing cold Winter at Valley Forge prior to the attack on the Hessians at Trenton during the Revolution. But we don’t read as often about the many other such Winters both at Valley Forge and elsewhere, that had to be endured as the war dragged on for eight long years and the underfed and ill-clothed condition of the army remained virtually the same. Washington Irving in his biography of George Washington described one such Winter at Morristown in some detail:

“The dreary encampment at Valley Forge has become proverbial for its hardships, yet they were scarcely more severe than those suffered by Washington’s army during the present winter [1780] while hutted among the heights of Morristown. The winter set in early and was uncommonly rigorous. The transportation of supplies was obstructed, the magazines were exhausted, and the commissaries had neither money nor credit to enable them to replenish them. For weeks at a time the army was on half allowance, sometimes without meat, sometimes without bread, sometimes without both. There was a scarcity too of clothing and blankets so that the poor soldiers were suffering from cold as well as hunger. .  .  .  The severest trails of the Revolution in fact were not in the field, where there were shouts to excite and laurels to be won, but in the squalid wretchedness of ill-provided camps, where there was nothing to cheer and everything to be endured. To suffer was the lot of the revolutionary soldier.”

The details of the picture sketched here are graphically completed in a letter written by General Anthony Wayne, who was in charge of six regiments hutted near Morristown:

“Poorly clothed, badly fed, and worse paid. . . . some of them not having received a paper dollar for near twelve months, exposed to winter’s piercing cold, to drifting snows and chilling blasts, with no protection but old worn-out coats, tattered linen overalls and but one blanket between three men.”

Needless to say, there was widespread sickness and desertions were common, even mutiny. The wonder is that any of the soldiers stayed it out and that Washington had enough men to continue the fight when the war resumed after the long, cold Winters. But he did.

Much if this remarkable fact is attributed by many historians to Washington’s undeniable charisma, his devotion to his troops, and his willingness to endure the same conditions as they. But there is another factor that needs to be mentioned and that is the fact that the British and their allies were intent to demoralize the colonists by burning whole villages  and pillaging everything in sight. This activity had precisely the opposite effect. One famous incident involving the wife of the Rev. James Caldwell is recounted by Irving:

“When sacking of the village took place she retired with her children into a back room of the house. Her infant of eight months was in the arms of an attendant. She herself was seated on the side of a bed holding a child of three years of age by the hand, and was engaged in prayer. All was terror and confusion in the village when suddenly a musket was discharged in at the window. Two balls struck her in the breast and she fell dead on the floor. The parsonage and church were set on fire and it was with difficulty her body was rescued from the flames.”

The terrible incident became a rallying cry for the angry colonists who grew to hate the invaders and more determined than ever to drive them from their homeland. Their hatred helped keep them warm during the harsh winters.

There were a great many loyal British subjects as the war began and the colonies had a difficult time raising militia enough to engage in a war against one of the most powerful armies on earth, especially since many of those “loyal” British subjects joined with the invaders to fight against their former countrymen. But as the war went on and the atrocities multiplied, despite the harsh conditions of the Winters and the lack of pay accompanied by the diminishing value of printed currency, the number of loyal British subjects diminished and the intensity of the colonists grew and became fierce. And they became better soldiers.

In any number of ways throughout history the same story, or stories very much like this one, has been repeated in the innumerable wars that humans have waged against one another. And yet the lesson is never learned. It is determined by one side or the other to “escalate” the war and demoralize the enemy by dropping bigger bombs or sending drones — which is the modern version of pillaging — only to discover that such actions merely enrage the enemy and make them more determined than ever to retaliate.

We find this today with the rapid growth of terrorist groups that has resulted from the “war on terror” this nation has declared as a result of the attack on the Twin Towers. The number of terrorists doesn’t diminish, it expands. Hatred breeds hatred. This is one of the lessons that history has held before us and it is one of the many lessons that we continue to ignore.