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.


The Spirit of Compromise

The son of my blog buddy BTG recently graduated from High Point University in North Carolina. The commencement address was delivered by Colin Powell. (This beats the recent commencement speaker at my alma mater who was Michael Wilbon — one of the talking heads on ESPN.)  In any event, Powell had some wise words to share with the graduates and he stressed, among other things, the need for the young people sitting before him to get involved and learn the art of compromise. He reminded the students that the founding of this country was made possible only because of the willingness of those remarkable men to compromise. Somehow, that spirit of compromise has died.

Reflection leads us to a number of possibilities as to why this has happened. To begin with the obvious, the country is considerably larger and the political process much more complex than it was in the eighteenth century. When the founders were trying to figure how to escape from the stifling embrace of England, they had a common purpose. To be sure, there were divided loyalties, since many feared the wrath of the most powerful nation on earth — and wanted its continued protection. Bear in mind that the Spanish and French had been on the continent for years before the Pilgrims landed and the New England colonies got organized. Together with the native people, they were viewed as a constant threat. So a number of the founders simply were willing to put up with a few minor inconveniences, such as taxation without representation, in order to have the assurance that the English army and navy was there to protect them. But thanks to the foolishness of the British in Boston, the wisdom of Washington and Jefferson, and the persuasive powers of people like John Adams, the representatives gathered in Philadelphia were willing to compromise and declare independence from England. Without a willingness to compromise, there could have been no Declaration of Independence.

But the notion of compromise today is equated in the minds of a great many people with “capitulation,” the willingness to sell out, a form of cowardice. Loyalty in the political arena is not to an idea, as it was in 1776, it is to the political party (which did not exist in 1776) and to the corporate interests that support the party and determines reelection or failure in political office. Things have changed considerably, and it it’s not only about the increased size of the country, it’s more about what really matters. To the colonial founders, what mattered was their independence and ability to determine their own future without the outside influence of a power across the sea that really took little interest in their future, other than to be sure of a steady supply of tobacco and cotton and continued income from taxes paid. Today, there is no idea, except the idea of continuing in a cushy office (hey, it beats real work!) with the assurance of great wealth after retirement, either as a lobbyist for one of the corporations, or simply from the wise investment of funds made available during the term in office.

Clearly, Colin Powell was addressing the current inability of the sitting congress to compromise and see the larger canvas — the national interest that was once referred to as “The Common Good.” He knows whereof he speaks. If the reasons for this inability are not clear, then it is because the person who fails to see them simply doesn’t want to look. It is self-interest, pure and simple, the very thing the Greeks knew would eventually destroy any political body no matter how strong and well conceived it might happen to be. I suspect Colin Powell knows that. He has something that so many others in the public eye seem to lack: clear vision and the ability to make sacrifices that are necessary in order to guarantee that the nation he loves and has dedicated his life to does not take the wrong turn. His were words of wisdom, and one can only hope that they are heard not only by those graduates sitting in North Carolina, but by all who have ears, and especially those in power who determine the future of this country.

Defining Moments

In the truly remarkable seven-part HBO series on John Adams there is one of those defining moments that almost redeems the American movie-making industry, allowing us to forget for a moment that so many movies today are just technical display with no plot and maximum sex and violence. That moment occurs immediately after the representatives from the thirteen colonies meeting in Philadelphia have voted to become independent from England. After months of acrimonious debate and the delaying tactics of a number of cautious representatives who sensibly feared the might of British arms and pleaded patience, the vote was taken and the results read to the small contingent in the crowded room. At that moment, the camera backs off and slowly pans the faces in the room; there is no sound; there is little or no movement for nearly 10 seconds — it seems like hours — as the delegates realize what they have just done. One imagines them thinking: “My God! We have just declared war on one of the most powerful nations on earth — and we have no army and no navy! We are marked men with targets on our chests. If we are caught we will be hanged.” The moment is powerful and extremely effective.

At the time of America’s declaration of independence there were no political parties. There were, of course, grave differences among the various colonies, each of which prized its own uniqueness. There was a growing rift between North and South which would eventually erupt into the Civil War — a slave economy in the South violently opposed to the aggressive, commercial enterprise of the North. That tension soon gave birth to what eventually became political parties, the Federalists in the North and the Republicans in the South. The former, led by people like Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, tending toward a stronger national unity, the latter, led by folks like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, insisting on autonomy for the individual states and a minimum of national interference. As President, Adams signed into law the infamous “Alien and Sedition Act,” designed to protect the new nation from foreign spies. And one of the first things Jefferson did as President was to disband the navy — which was a bit of a joke to begin with. This difference of opinion about what the new nation was to become eventually broke up the close relationship between Jefferson and Adams, who had become very close in those formative years. Late in their lives they became friends again and died on the same day 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence. Remarkable!

But those early differences among the various delegates were buried in a common concern: rid the colonies of the dreaded British and declare independence as a confederation of states free of English Parliamentary abuse. During the 200th birthday of this country Henry Steele Commager was asked what the major difference was between the America of 1776 and the America of 1976. He did not hesitate, but said the major difference was that 200 years before America was looking to the future; now we have become focused on the present and tend to ignore the future altogether. There is no question whether Commager was right. But there was another difference as well: in the eighteenth century the men who got together in Philadelphia to deal with the abuses of a common enemy were able to put aside their differences and act in common. Despite the acrimony, deep and genuine ideological differences, and the relentless heat of a Philadelphia Summer, they were able to decide on a common course of action and prepare to act together, whatever the costs. They were marked men, traitors to the Mother country. But they were determined and of one mind (for the most part). That doesn’t even seem possible any more.

We are at a time in our history when we need more than ever to act in accord. Our country is not under attack (seriously), but our planet is. We need to put aside our differences, like those delegates, and act with one common accord to attempt to reverse the terrible consequences of a damaged planet we are in the process of destroying. But the special interests, Big Oil and Gas and folks like the Koch brothers, have all the cards and seem determined to play out the hand they have dealt themselves — regardless of the consequences. Once again we have acrimony and tension between those who fear for the future of the planet and those who are blind to the problems that stare us all in the face out of a love of unlimited profits — or just plain ignorance. In Congress, loyalty to political party has completely erased loyalty to what the Founders referred to as the Common Good. It would appear that this time there will be no meeting of the minds, folks will not come together and put aside their differences to cooperate and reach agreement on what must be done. This is, assuredly, a defining moment, not in a film made for television, but in real life.

Political Parties

Did you ever wonder why the founders of this nation wrote a federal constitution? In this day of political paralysis it might be well if we consider that question, because the answer is that it was written in order to avoid political paralysis that was thought to inevitably follow the formation of political parties — or factions as they were called in the eighteenth century. To a man, people as diverse in their leanings as the Federalist from New York, Alexander Hamilton, and the Republican from Virginia, James Madison, agreed with Thomas Paine when he insisted that political parties were “evil” and would eventually bring about the dissolution of the Republic and of individual liberty as well. The example these men had in mind was England which had no written constitution and which was in their day being torn apart by the Whigs and the Tories who were ever at odds with one another. The only way to avoid the disaster that was England was to have a written constitution that would embrace the principles of Republican government and rally men of various political persuasions to the cause of the Common Good and instill in their hearts the spirit of public virtue. Paine insisted that “. . .it is the nature and intention of a constitution to prevent governing by party, by establishing a common principle that shall limit and control the power and the impulse of party, and that says to all parties, thus far thou shalt go and no further. But in the absence of a constitution, men look entirely to party; and instead of principle governing party, party governs principle.” Indeed, George Washington’s Farewell Address echoes Paine’s fears of parties: “However [parties and factions] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

But Washington’s hatred of parties merely anticipates that of John Adams who said in 1780, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other.” And John’s wife Abigail went even further, if that’s possible, in saying, “Party spirit is blind, malevolent, uncandid, ungenerous, unjust, and unforgiving. . . Party hatred by its deadly poison blinds the Eyes and envenoms the heart. It is fatal to the integrity of moral character. It sees not that wisdom dwells in moderation and that firmness of conduct is seldom united with outrageous violence of sentiment.” And, of course, there’s Thomas Jefferson’s famous comment that “If I could not go to heaven but with a party I would not go there at all.”

The Federalist Papers, which were written to help persuade New York to ratify the newly written federal constitution, are rife with references to political parties, or factions; phrases such as “the cloven foot of faction,” “faction acting in disguise,” and “the dupes of faction,” together with literally hundreds of such references that can be found on nearly every page. One might say that the single thing the founders feared above all else  — even more than the return of the English King to power over the colonies — was the rise of political parties. As noted above, Thomas Paine, whom many historians regard as the major figure behind the American revolution, regarded the constitution as the essential barrier between the violence of party and the principles of republican government. Paine, along with virtually every other intellectual of his time was convinced that if political parties were allowed to develop they would inevitably destroy the constitution, the principles of republican government, and the republic itself. And with the republic would go individual liberty.

So when we look back from the perspective of the 21st century and ask what went wrong we need to look no further than the ascendency of political parties and the inordinate power and wealth they have been able to amass, together with the loyalties that men and women who feed at the public trough feel toward their party and those who fund their party rather than to the nation and its people they are pledged to serve.

Gun Control

In light of the ongoing discussion about gun control, and the likelihood that this Congress will almost certainly not come up with tougher gun laws which so many people clearly want, we might reflect on the recent shooting death of a deputy’s wife by a four-year old child who discharged the officer’s gun by mistake, as reported by USA Today. It raises serious questions about the veracity of the NRA mantra  “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”  But whether we agree with the NRA or not, it seems unlikely that the fourteen people stabbed in a Houston (TX) Junior College yesterday would still be alive if they had been shot by an automatic weapon like the one used in Sandy Hook. Be that as it may, those who are fighting for tougher gun restrictions are fighting with one hand (both?) tied behind their backs: the NRA doesn’t seem to be the least bit worried, as a recent Yahoo News story reveals:

Most Americans support tougher gun control measures. Too bad the gun lobby has so many politicians in its pocket

There’s no denying it: The National Rifle Association has won — again. Even though more than 3,000 Americans have died via gun violence since 20 children and 6 adults were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary in December, the NRA has somehow managed to triumph. The victims’ families and gun control advocates have lost. Forget an assault weapons ban — or any other serious gun regulation. It’s not happening.

The apparent failure of this Congress to make any serious inroads against the powerful NRA lobby is disturbing on both of two grounds, moral and historical. On moral grounds it is simply wrong to continue to make available to ordinary citizens automatic weapons that are designed to kill other human beings. On historical grounds, the issue is also quite clear. We need to recall the exact wording of the second amendment to our Constitution which  states that “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” I have blogged about this before, but we need to bear in mind that this is what logicians call a “conditional” sentence. It was written very carefully by James Madison who, along with Thomas Jefferson, worried more about a standing army then they did about the right to bear arms. In fact, the statement says that in order to assure ourselves of the continued readiness of a militia that will render unnecessary a standing army, we must guarantee every citizen the right to bear arms. The issue of a standing army was paramount.

Long after the Constitution was ratified and while the young nation was struggling with the prospect of a return to monarchy under the Presidency of John Adams, with the urging of Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson wrote the following letter expressing in no uncertain terms just what his concerns were:

“I am for relying on our militia solely, till actual invasion, and for such naval force only as may protect our coasts and harbors from such depredations as we have experienced; and not for a standing army in time of peace, which may overawe the public sentiment; nor for a navy, which by its own expenses and the eternal wars in which it will implicate us, will grind us with public burdens, and sink us under them.”

It is because those men feared a standing army (and navy) making it necessary for every citizen to be ready to defend the nation if it ever again came under attack that they wrote the second amendment to the Constitution. Those who have no problems with a four-year old child accidentally shooting a woman dead in her own home, or a maniac walking into a school and shooting 20 young children, or walking into a movie theater and shooting anyone who moved, should ponder the rationale behind the amendment they hold aloft and hide fearfully behind: that amendment was not designed to protect our alleged right to carry automatic weapons and shoot our fellow citizens. It was designed to guarantee that there would never be a standing army.

The history lesson is quite clear, as are the moral grounds for disallowing weapons that are designed only to kill other humans. But the politicians who should be listening have their hands in the pockets of the gun lobby and their heads up their butts, which, I suppose, makes it hard for them to hear much of anything.

Representation Revisited

I wrote a blog not long ago on the idea of representative government. It fascinates me, I must confess. Why people decided that it was OK for one person to “represent” dozens, hundreds, even thousands of others is so illogical it beggars belief. Rousseau said that we are free only at the moment we elect our representatives; after that we are enslaved to them. And that we continue to call this a “democracy” simply shows how loosely we use words.

After the English Civil Wars very near the end of the seventeenth century the Whigs struggled with the notion of representative government even before Rousseau. They knew the best possible form of government was a pure democracy in which each citizen participates in government and partakes in the making of the laws they are then called upon to obey. That’s as close to real civil liberty as we can get on this earth: obeying the laws we make ourselves.

But while this may work in a Greek City-State in 300 BC, perhaps, it will not work in the modern world where states tend to be large and unwieldy. So the English experimented with representative government and held brief Parliamentary sessions for their short-term representatives who were supposed to go back home and get directives from their neighbors as to how to vote next time they were called upon to do so. And, of course, the representatives were not paid so they were not eager to stay in office and grow fat while spiders wove webs in their beards.

But that didn’t work very well, either, since the sessions were too short and the constant change in personnel made it hard to get anything done (though I dare say the King thought it worked quite well!).  So the length of the Parliamentary sessions got longer and the representatives eventually had to be paid and soon we had the birth of the professional politician. The English Whigs were very nervous about this, of course, since they knew that in electing a representative they were in effect transferring their wills to another. And, as they feared, Parliament gradually became a separate body making independent decisions — another sort of despotism, if you will. In fact, members of Parliament could make laws that went counter to the wishes of the people they were supposed to represent: the very opposite of political liberty. As one of the Whigs at the time said, the idea that the representative could do what they liked was “almost too monstrous to conceive.” But that’s what developed. It wasn’t what was in the plan as originally conceived, but it was a plan the Americans adopted after their own struggles with the concept. But as we can see the phrase “Representative Government” is a misnomer.

If the idea of representation were to mean anything at all the governing body would have to be proportional: it would have to represent the political body as a whole. As John Adams said early in the discussion about representation in this country, “It should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them.” One possible way of determining fair representation would be as follows:, if 30% of the population is Republican, 35% is Democratic, 30% are Independent, and the remaining 5% are “Other” a truly representative body would represent those groups in precisely those proportions. Or one might choose representation by income levels or property ownership, perhaps. But none of these options was adopted as we know. Most of our representatives on both sides of the political aisle are (as it happens) among the wealthy 1% of the people in this country and we can be relatively sure that they represent their own self-interest — certainly not the rest of us. (It might do to recall that the founders of this country chose the term “Republic” because the Latin root res publica meant “the public thing” where all private interest is sacrificed to what is best for all. Just a thought.)

In the end it would appear that we have arrived at the point the founders wanted above all else to avoid, to wit, the condition of the English House of Commons in the middle of the eighteenth century which had become, according to James Iredell writing in 1776  “so unequally, irregularly, and inadequately representative that it had left little to the real voice of the people and had become separated from, and converted into a different interest from the collective.”