Archive for August, 2011

What did “one if by land, two if by sea” mean?

Posted on August 15, 2011. Filed under: American history, Revolutionary War | Tags: , , |

It’s one of those phrases, like “Damn the torpedoes!” or “Give me liberty or give me death!”, that all Americans know, but not everyone is sure they can explain. It’s a quick story but a good one.

In May 1774, the governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Gage, dissolved the General Court. This was Massachusetts’ popularly elected legislature, and had been since the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded in 1630. The General Court was to be replaced by a Council of men appointed by King George III, just as Governor Gage had been royally appointed. This move overturned the system established in 1691 when Massachusetts became a royal colony: a royally appointed governor, but a popularly elected legislature.

Gage dissolved the GC because it was filled with men agitating for revolution. It was an attempt to stop the GC from fomenting rebellion amongst the so-far non-committal people of the colony. But whether or not they supported revolution, Massachusetts citizens were not going to give up their right to elect their representatives. They voted for representatives in the fall of 1774 as usual, except now those men would constitute the Provincial Congress. This Congress was illegal, according to the British Massachusetts Government Act that had dissolved the GC. It was not allowed to meet in Boston, and so gathered in Concord, northwest of the city. (Learn more about this fascinating 1774 vote at Boston 1775.)

So the Provincial Congress was in Concord, led by John Hancock, and a network of secret spy posts quickly went up between Boston and Concord. These were organized and manned by the Sons of Liberty’s Committee of Safety, which had one very active member named Paul Revere. The northwest precinct of Cambridge, a village called Menotomy (today’s Arlington) was just about at the halfway mark, and the Committee of Safety established a post at the White Horse tavern there. The posts were meant to send news from Boston to Concord about British plans and troop movements.

When the patriots in Boston found out from their spies that the British were planning to go out to Concord to seize an arms and ammunition cache, then arrest the members of the PC, Paul Revere, William Dawes, Samuel Prescott, and a few men whose names are lost to history made ready to ride out to Concord along the spy road to warn the town and the Congress. Word came that the British would set out from Boston on the night of April 18th. Now all they needed to know was what route the soldiers would take out to Concord.

This image, from the Paul Revere house website, shows the two possible routes:

The “land” route is in green. The green line that begins in Boston actually covers up the thin, long neck of land that connected the city to the mainland, but there was a land line, and if the British went south, that would be going “by land”. This was a longer, more roundabout way to Concord, but it avoided the difficulties of the sea route.

The “sea” route is in blue. The little blue boat covers up the Charles River that lay between Boston and Charlestown. Taking this route, the British got to Concord a little sooner, but also got very wet embarking and disembarking and then marching through swamp land on the shore.

Dawes actually took off first, before Revere, going by way of the land route just before the British sealed off the city. Revere snuck across the Charles River to Charlestown, illegally crossing the river at night, to warn the citizens that the British might be coming through at any moment. Revere and the citizens of Charlestown whom he had alarmed then waited for a signal from Robert Newman, sexton of the Old North Church in Boston, about whether the British were indeed on their way, or taking the southern route.

One lantern for the southern route; two for the river crossing. Two lanterns appeared in the steeple for less than a minute, lest they be sighted. The men of Charlestown began their preparations, hiding horses that could be commandeered by the British and getting word to their militia men to start for Concord. Revere got on his horse and tore down the spy road through Menotomy and Medford, “alarming” the citizens that “the Regulars are out!” (This referred to the soldiers of the British Regular Army.) When he arrived in Lexington, and the house Hancock and Samuel Adams were staying at, a man in the house was waked up by Revere shouting. He asked Revere why he was making so much noise in the middle of the night. “Noise!” retorted Revere. “You’ll have more noise than this before long! The regulars are coming out!”

The rest is history. The British completed their sea route to Concord, and a famous standoff ensued—more on that another time. For now, “one if by land, two if by sea” is fully explained for all, and makes a satisfying addition to our store of knowledge on our country’s founding.

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“Born Fighting”: Truth v. Myth, part 2

Posted on August 8, 2011. Filed under: American history, Politics, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , |

Part 2 of our Truth v. Myth on Sen. James Webb’s take on Scots-Irish history in America, the broadcast of “Born Fighting” recently aired on the Smithsonian Channel, finds us in post-Revolutionary War America, following the Scots-Irish in their ever-westerly travels.

Webb reaffirms the group’s “hatred of tyranny… and the belief that personal freedom should be a right, not a privilege.” Again, continuing with the theme of this investigation, it seems one could say that of any and all Americans, barring slaveholders, and one could point out that the entire population of the new nation had just ratified a federal government dedicated to the principle that freedom is a right. So it would not be just the Scots-Irish who felt this way. But Webb, a Senator, is anti-government, as he makes more and more clear in this documentary, and so he separates the principle of freedom being a natural right from the government and locates it fully in this one particular group.

Webb also says that the Scots-Irish believed that “only ability should dictate success”, and uses this as a springboard for talking about his greatest Scots-Irish hero, Andrew Jackson. We have dealt with Jackson here and here, and hopefully laid aside the idea that he was any kind of hero. But Webb buys into Jackson’s self-created propaganda that he was a man who stood up for the rights of the downtrodden, and gave power to the average American, the frontiersman, and the little guy. To do so, Webb first says that, thanks to Jackson, all white males had the right to vote by 1840.

Universal white male suffrage had begun long before Jackson’s Administation: Vermont had always had full white male suffrage, and New Jersey, Maryland, and South Carolina had it by 1810; states entering the Union after 1815 either offered universal white male suffrage or an extremely low landowner’s tax requirement (a small farm would count to pay this tax); by 1821 Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York had universal white male suffrage. So the white male suffrage revolution did not come after 1828 but before it, and it benefited Jackson rather than being a gift he gave the nation.

Webb says Jackson’s populism “undermined aristocratic elites and protected the weak… Jackson said the poor and humble require the arm and the shield of the law.” The Americans Jackson enslaved on his plantation in Tennessee might not have realized he felt that way. Neither would the Chickasaws whom he “removed” from their land, which he then sold and made a fortune on. Neither would the Cherokees, whom he did his best to destroy after they proved they had the right to stay on their lands. Perhaps it is only the poor and humble white frontiersman whom Jackson wanted to protect. Webb’s one nod to this reality is his statement that Jackson’s “legacy isn’t flawless—he was a product of his time… but he stopped the notion of a permanent aristocracy.” Excusing slaveholding because someone is “of his time” is perhaps the emptiest of all defenses. Plenty of abolitionists were of the same time. And it’s not as if people did not debate the morality of slavery during Jackson’s time. Finally, no one group defines “permanent aristocracy” in “their time” like slaveholders, whom Jackson sought to shore up at every turn. Jackson was “of his time” as well in his reliance on political machines to control who got into office, and his insistence on giving political office to and pushing through legislation for party loyalists, many of them rich business men in the East.

We reach the Civil War. Webb states that the Scots-Irish enlisted in droves for the Confederacy, but, predictably, that “few fought to preserve slavery… they fought against invasion, to save their homes, and protect their families.” We’ve dealt this this idea here; we can sum up this stance that the average Confederate did not fight for slavery this way: revisionists say that while powerful southerners fought for slavery, the average Confederate in the trenches was a poor man who didn’t own any enslaved people, who only fought because his homeland was invaded. Most notable in spreading this idea was Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’ documentary The Civi War, who quotes a Confederate telling a Union soldier that he fought “because you are down here.” This is the argument put about now—that the average Confederate soldier did not fight for slavery, and therefore bears no shame for his part in the war. But why was the Union “down there” in the first place? Because the southern states had seceeded so they could continue slavery. If the average poor Confederate really did have nothing in common with, and even hated and resented the rich whites who held slaves, why fight their war? Why fight and die so those rich whites could continue to control society and politics, have slaves, and keep poor white people poor? No war is simple. There’s no one reason why poor southern men fought for the Confederacy. They fought, as all people do, for a mix of reasons; in this case, fear and anger at being invaded, a sense of having no choice but to enlist once war began, wanting to join their friends in the army, loyalty to rich white leaders in their own towns and counties, excitement at the prospect of war, resentment of the North’s “anti-southern” policies, and a host of other, private reasons. Union soldiers had the same mix, and many of the same inducements. But no matter why they fought, they fought, and they fought to preserve the Confederacy, which was a slave society. There’s nothing noble about that.

But Webb buys into the blameless Confederate soldier myth, quoting what he calls a “beautifully put”Confederate war memorial in Arlington Cemetery as saying the Confederate fought “in simple obedience to duty, as he understood it.” This monument was installed in 1912 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy; here is a description:

“Completing the frieze are six vignettes illustrating the effect of the war on Southerners of all races. The vignettes include a black slave following his young master; an officer kissing his infant child in the arms of her mammy; a blacksmith leaving his bellows and workshop as his sorrowful wife looks on; a young lady binding the sword and sash on her beau; and a young officer standing alone. The base of the memorial features several inscriptions. On its front face are the seal of the Confederacy and a tribute by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, followed by the Latin phrase: “Victrix Causa Diis Placuit Sed Victa Caton.” This phrase means: The Victorious Cause was Pleasing to the Gods, But the Lost Cause to Cato.”

This is the sort of revisionist, pro-Confederate insult statuary that flourished from the end of the Civil War to basically the 1960s. It celebrates slavery as a benign, even good institution, and states that while the terrible heartless North may have won, the truly righteous were on the pro-slavery side. “Simple obedience” to that kind of duty is no honor.

Now Webb really lays into the current United States by lambasting the North for its overwhelming cruelty to the South after the war. “The North would go on to enjoy the victor’s spoils, while the South was left a devastated wreck… two-thirds of Southern wealth disapeared…[and the south was]occupied and controlled by the North… economic decline suffocated individual opportunity… Economically, it resembled a colony” owned and controlled by outside forces. This was the sad state of things until WWI.

It’s truly astonishing that a U.S. senator would make these statements. First, because they are so patently false; second, because they are anachronistically pushing a radical right, Tea Party agenda into the late 1800s, and third, because they are part of his lengthy attack on the validity of our federal government.

The North had few “spoils” to enjoy. Its industry continued profitably as it had done before and during the war. Its farms prospered as they had always done. In other words, regular life went on. The South didn’t lose 2/3 of its wealth to the North; it lost the bulk of that wealth because it lost its slaves. The majority of that figure is loss of slave labor and investment in slave trading. And one can only wish that the north had occupied the south like a colony, instead of abandoning it and the Reconstruction effort in 1877, because then the return to slavery in all but name and the grinding decades of economic decay the south experienced would not have happened.

Instead, the federal government (“the North”) did not re-distribute plantation land, which all remained in the hands of the original slaveholding owners; pardoned all Confederate soldiers and politicians except for those in high office; and allowed former Confederates to be elected to state governments and to Congress. There was temporary military rule in 1867, which was necessary to keep whites from stopping black Americans from voting for the first time. Southern leaders refused to industrialize or give up the plantation system, using sharecroppers instead of slaves, and local white southern merchants were the ones who gouged the poor, black and white, by miring them in unpayable debt.

It was the north deciding to wash its hands of the south, feeling that enough money and blood had been spent there, that led to the south being ground down into poverty and misery. The refusal of the white power elite to give up plantation agriculture with strictly human labor guaranteed a future of poverty. Their refusal to grant blacks their full rights guaranteed generations of crime, fear, and hate.

Webb clearly feels the federal government has not changed since the war and that it is an instrument of oppression. As we move away from his clenched-jaw description of the south’s self-inflicted wrongs, we move west once again with the Scots-Irish. Leaving the south, to Webb, means that Scots-Irish culture “became the basis for its greatest American legacy. New European immigrants gravitated toward the embrace of the Scots-Irish, their values spread wherever they went: self-reliance, equality, fighting any domination from above [see federal government]… their values and traditions were re-shaping America from the bottom up… over time, they lost their Scots-Irishness and became harder and harder to identify. They became more and more the mainstream of American development. Against all odds, the Scots-Irish working class ethics are now basic American values.” All country music is Scots-Irish, and everyone in the military is, too. Basically, any time you see a church, you are looking at the Scots-Irish.

So in fact you are Scots-Irish if you don’t know you are, the entire middle class is basically Scots-Irish, and those fight, sing, drink, pray values that no other group on Earth shares are the American Way. Of course, as always, we can say the same things of almost every group of Americans, every ethnicity: the Germans, the Irish, the English, the Dutch, the Italians… every group has intermarried beyond recognition and fanned out across the country with ethics of hard work and independence. Because they are all Americans.

“Over the centuries,” Webb goes on, “the Scots-Irish defined mainstream American life.” If you are individualistic and ambitious, you are Scots-Irish. Rosa Parks was Scots-Irish (through her great-grandfather; how might that have happened?). The Scots-Irish are “the molten core at the very center of the unbridled, raw, rebellious spirit of America… they faced the world on their feet, not on their knees. They were born fighting, and if their cause is right (like colonizing for Britain, killing Indians for their lands, or fighting for slavery) they will never give it up.”

This relentless emphasis on rebellion, fighting, and the sins of the federal government sound all too familiar to us today. This is the mantra of the far right, the Tea Party, which tells Americans their government is a terrible mistake and must be destroyed; terrible because it regulates business and provides social services and makes sure our water and air are safe. Americans, this theory goes, must always reject every demand on them—taxes, regulation, equal opportunity laws, etc. What Americans do is shoot guns, fight the government, and look out for themselves first and foremost.

This is not really America. This is not our “molten core.” These are not our core values. We don’t have an unstable, dangerous, molten core, we have a core of law, justice, and democracy. We cooperate to create a fair government that can protect everyone in this country without taking away our basic freedom. We do not primarily fight and drink. We all pray in different ways, or not at all. We all sing everyone’s songs. We are not all Scots-Irish, and the Scots-Irish are not as they are described here, as people who fight only for their own profit rather than for ideals of communal justice and freedom. People who hold slaves are not heroes of liberty. People who prevent their fellow citizens from exercising their full civil rights cannot blame someone else for the problems that causes. Re-writing history to validate whatever people do because of their ethnicity is not history. “Born Fighting” is a slur on the Scots-Irish, our government, and our nation that we hope will continue to be countered by factual histories of this nation and its people.

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Truth v. Myth: “Born Fighting”

Posted on August 5, 2011. Filed under: American history, Colonial America, Revolutionary War, Second Amendment, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , |

Senator James Webb (D-VA) published his book Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America in 2004; the Smithsonian Channel just broadcast the video adaptation recently. It was aired in two parts. Part 1 focused on Scotland, beginning with Hadrian’s Wall, and followed the eventual appearance of Protestantism in Scotland, the conflicts with England over non-conformism, and the recruitment of Protestant Scots by England into the north of Ireland to settle land seized by the English government from Catholic Irish landholders (thus changing the Irish population, it was hoped, and calming the place down for English rule). The Scots encountered growing hostility from the native population they were helping to colonize, and after the siege and battle of Londonderry, in which they received no help from England in beating off the Catholic Irish, many of the Scots—now called Scots-Irish or Scotch-Irish by the native population who did not accept even those born in the country as Irish, left for another English colonial land: America.

This first part of the documentary was not perfect, but it was at least technically accurate in most of its details. The second part goes dramatically off-course into the damaging kind of us-vs-them, who’s-a-real-American, America-is-about-violence, and racial politics that is characteristic of myth. We’re going to take the time to rebut the myth perpetuated by one of our Senators because it’s important to call people in high office on the damage they do to historical truth and our own citizens’ perception of what our country stands for.

Like most people who have a thesis that one group of people, one invention, one idea, etc., has shaped the course of world history, Webb consistently makes statements about the Scots-Irish that could be true of any group. “This culture shaped America”, he begins, “…creating the very basis of American democracy.” Which culture that is part of America has not shaped it? Which culture has left no imprint on our government, political history, treasured ideas, or important battles? And since our democracy has been constantly evolving since 1775, no one group can claim to have established the basis of that democracy. (If you had to choose, you’d have to say Americans of English descent. The men who framed our government and put its ideals and principles into law were overwhelmingly of English background.)

Webb’s elevator description of the Scots-Irish is “fight, sing, drink, pray”. This to him sums up their willingness to fight any war, their resolve and determination, their rebellious refusal to submit to “outside” law, and their strict morality. Again, it’s not hard to think of other groups do not have the same reputation: the Irish, Greeks, and Mexicans come to mind. But Webb begins part 2 with the story of the first Scots-Irish in America, again recruited by the English to put down the locals and act as colonizers. Scots-Irish people settled in Pennsylvania on the borderlands between Quaker settlement and Native Americans. Webb describes their experiences there in what he calls “the unimproved wilderness”. The word “wilderness” comes up frequently, and is never questioned as inaccurate (as the land had been settled, hunted, and known by its native inhabitants for millennia). The Quaker refusal to fight is mentioned repeatedly, and seems to be put out there to deride the Quakers and anyone else who questions the value of violence and war. This is a theme that runs through the show.

Again, at the end of the Pennsylvania section, Webb says that the “flood” of Scots-Irish immigrants that followed “would eventually transform America”, and again it’s a claim you could make about anyone, including the English, French, and Germans who preceded  or came along with the Scots-Irish just about wherever they went.

It is almost funny when Webb describes the pioneers in the Shenandoah Valley who “carried their few belongings with them” (unlike all other pioneers?) into the “wilderness” only to discover “they weren’t alone”. The fact that the land was inhabited is, of course, the first indicator of its not being a wilderness. The Native Americans whose land the pioneers were settling are basically presented as threatening, though it is of course the natives who were threatened by white settlement and claims of land ownership.

When the French and Indian War began, Webb says, the Scots-Irish fought eagerly and made their name as “unflinching fighters”. He characterizes their attitude as “This is my land and I’m going to stay here and protect it and if I have to, I will fight for it.” Which again is the precise attitude of every group of people in human history who have been in a war on their own territory. Only the Native Americans, in this case, really had the right to say it.

Already, Webb is making a case he will repeat many times: the Scots-Irish a) like to fight, b) are brave (really braver than anyone else), and c) show their independence by fighting. The first tenet really discredits the second two. People who like to fight aren’t really brave, and they don’t fight for independence, but because it’s what they do. The Scots-Irish on the frontier fought because that’s what they had been hired to do by the British governors who brought them in (payment being the right to settle and the grant of religious freedom) and they wanted to keep the land they had settled. That is not really about bravery or independence.

In fact, we have seen the Scots-Irish now as established colonizers, people with no hesitation to help a colonial power destroy native people in return for those people’s lands. It is odd that this is never addressed in Webb’s tale of the Scots-Irish as freedom-loving people who always fought tyranny.

His description of the period between the end of the French and Indian War and the beginning of the Revolutionary War is, politely put, difficult to understand. “Britain tightened its grip over America’s east coast. And now, isolated from British colonial rule to the east, the Scots-Irish frontiersmen settled into their American roots… and turned their backs on bigotry in America’s colonial towns”.

The bizarre inaccuracies—British rule had always been most present on the east coast (which is why the British brought in the Scots-Irish to colonize the western frontier); but after the war concentrated more and more on controlling the western frontier; as frontierspeople the Scots-Irish had always been isolated from coastal society; and bigotry is never relegated to urban areas (see plantation life)—slowly make sense only as the show goes on and Webb talks about Andrew Jackson. Webb reveres Jackson, and has apparently bought into the idea Jackson and his followers evangelized for, that “elites” were running America and a cabal of “aristocrats” in the cities was ruining the nation. The idea that Jackson put power in the hands of average people is not true; he put his friends and financial backers into federal office regardless of their qualifications, he was a wealthy slaveholder, and he had no special regard for the rights of the “little guy”, as any Native or black American would tell you.

As for the idea that the previously isolated Scots-Irish were isolated still after the war, it’s not really true. Germans and Huguenots moved in large numbers into the American south from the mid-1600s right up to the Revolutionary War. Many of the Germans were Protestants unable to worship as they wished at home, and of course the Huguenots left everything behind in France to come to America in the name of religious freedom. Webb would have viewers believe the Scots-Irish were the only people in America (maybe in the world) who sacrificed for their freedom of religion, left everything behind, and braved the hardships of the frontier with no help from outside. All of the colonies of the south were first settled, of course, by the English. Most of them were non-conformists, just like the Scots-Irish, who refused to compromise their faith and left all behind in the name of freedom. In North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky, the Scots-Irish came in after the Huguenots and Germans.

The Revolutionary War saw many Scots-Irish enlist, just as it saw many members of all the groups in the colonies enlist. Webb focuses on the Battle of King’s Mountain of 1780, in which 900 Scots-Irish militia men routed 1200 British soldiers. The British, rigidly sticking to “European battle formation”, were mown down by the sniping Scots-Irish who were smart enough to use guerrilla tactics. Webb states there were 500 British casualties and 28 American. The ragged, poor militia “destroyed” the British army.

But it wasn’t completely that way. The British did not remain in formation, standing still waiting to get shot, but instead made repeated bayonet charges, which, while unsuccessful in winning the battle, at least made some sense. Of the five American militia leaders, one was of Huguenot descent (John Sevier), two were governors, two served in Congress, and two served in state legislatures; three were born into wealth, and one married into it. So the leadership was not completely rag-tag. The casualties were 244 killed, 163 wounded, and 668 taken prisoner for the British, and 29 killed and 58 wounded for the Americans. One reason for the high British death count was that the militia men continued firing after the British put up a white flag.

We’ll end this post with Webb’s second bizarre leap away from historical fact: he claims that “In 1783, America acknowledged the efforts made by the overwhelmingly Scots-Irish militiamen in the south in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution”. First, the Second Amendment was adopted in 1791 with the rest of the original Bill of Rights (the Constitution wasn’t written and ratified until 1787). Second, a starkly modern political agenda is expressed here as historical fact. Webb goes on to say basically that people in the south care so much about gun ownership because they were once frontiersmen, and the frontiersman’s duty to protect his family over time turned into a right “for people with a long history of mistrust of the central government. There’s a saying around here: I’ll give up my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

Where to begin. First, what region of our nation never had a frontier? Is it that the north was never frontier land? The west? Every region of the present United States began as frontier land, where people had muskets or rifles to hunt with and to fight Indians and to use as part of the local militia in times of war. Second, either gun ownership is about self-reliance (the frontiersman) or it’s about not believing in government. If it’s that southerners never trusted the federal government, that’s not about the frontier. That’s a mistrust of the federal government that was shared by New Englanders, Mid-Atlantic states residents, and every other region you can think of. That’s what made creating the federal government in 1787 so difficult; even the “elites” on the east coast had their doubts about it turning into a tyranny. (It’s funny that this suspicious government is the one that made a special Amendment to preserve the rights of the Scots-Irish. One wonders what prevented them from looking more kindly on such a government.)

Webb, I think it’s fair to say, is looking at 1791 through the lens of 2011 and 1865 to say that the south is right not to trust the unfair northern government that oppresses it today and has oppressed it since the end of the Civil War. (You’ll see why I say this in the next post.) But the Second Amendment was not written to give people a way to create a state; our Founders believed that our system of law, our democracy, would keep people safe and free. It’s our government and the laws it is based on and that it enforces that create our liberty, independence, freedom, whatever you like to call it. Guns are not law, they are an alternative to law. So I quarrel with Senator Webb’s description of the origins of the Second Amendment, and the validity of the southern (as he calls it) attachment to weapons. The Amendment was not written as a thank-you to the Scots-Irish, and it is not about substituting gun ownershp for centralized government.

Next time: Jackson, the Civil War, and how the entire middle class is Scots-Irish

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Taxation = Slavery

Posted on August 1, 2011. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Civil War, Economics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

As always, when history is being made in the present, or the present is clearly marked in a historical cycle, we delve into it here on the HP.

In this case, it is the debate in Congress over whether to raise the debt ceiling or default. The main sticking point has been the refusal of a sizable minority of Republicans, mostly belonging to the Tea Party faction, to allow the federal government to collect tax revenue. This group demands tax breaks for the wealthy, including corporations, and the maintenance of tax loopholes that allow millions of dollars of tax revenue to go uncollected.

This is not the place to go into the details of their platform, or the response by moderate Republicans and Democrats. Here, the issue is the extreme instransigence of the Republican minority on the issue of taxation. It has become, to them, a crime for the government to raise taxes or even to collect taxes. To them, there is no compromise on taxation: you are either for it (and therefore un-American) or against it. Again, we’ll leave aside for this post the historical fallacy of anti-tax advocates calling themselves “Tea Party”; read about that here. For now, we’ll focus on the black-and-white issue they have turned taxation into. It’s hard to think of a time when Congress was so completely divided, so unwilling and unable to compromise on an issue; when you look back at our history, only one comparable time comes up—the slavery debates of the late 1850s.

You could not compromise on slavery during those Congresses. You were for it or against it, and this divide worked its way into many other, seemingly unrelated issues, and the uncompromisable issue of slavery could not be resolved. Congress could no longer function to govern the country, and civil war ensued at the 1860 election.

Today, Congress’ refusal to accept compromise on taxation is quite similar to the earlier Congress’ refusal to accept compromise on slavery. But there are two key differences: first, the American people were becoming just as divided over slavery as their representatives; second, slavery really is an issue you can’t seriously compromise on.

Americans in the 1850s didn’t want to fight a war over slavery, but they were rapidly becoming more polarized over it. Even those who didn’t particularly want abolition for morality’s sake blamed slavery for all of America’s ills, and would have gotten rid of it for economic or political reasons. Their representatives’ furor over slavery was not out of line, then, with Americans’ feelings about slavery. It does not seem accurate to make that claim today. Many Tea Party Congress members have said their constituents contacted them to say it’s okay to raise taxes to avoid default, but those members refused to do so out of principle. The extreme polarization in Congress today does not really have its roots in how Americans are feeling.

And taxation is not slavery. It’s not a black-and-white, moral issue that no one can take a moderate stance on. The government raises taxes in order to provide services. It’s a very simple and fundamental tenet of government. We have representation to our government to decide what services and how much taxation, not to stop the collection of tax revenue.

The taxation issue is part of a larger move to reduce the federal government to a negative function: the federal government will not provide social services (no Medicare, Social Security, Head Start, etc.), will not regulate business (protect the environment, police Wall Street, etc.), will not really legislate (instead, Constitutional Amendments will be put in place to handle social issues), amd will not extend civil rights to immigrants, gay people, etc. All it would do under this plan, apparently, is fund wars.

No one really wants to live in that world. It is undemocratic, and unself-sustaining. This experiment with such negative chaos is a dangerous one. The first experiment ended in civil war; it remains to be seen where we are headed in the next 20 years.

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