U.S. Constitution

BLM protests are patriotic

Posted on June 9, 2020. Filed under: American history, Bill of Rights, Politics, Revolutionary War, The Founders, Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

We’ve noticed this week that one of our posts–The Boston Tea Party and a tradition of violence–which we posted back on November 21, 2011, has been getting a lot of traffic. We wonder if this is connected with people searching for historical justifications or damnations of public protest currently taking place in America. Let us say unequivocally that nonviolent protest in the name of liberty and justice for all is one of the greatest acts of patriotism that any person, anywhere, including the United States of America, can make. Black Lives Matter protestors are patriotic Americans desperately trying to save this country from those un-American citizens who would turn it into a race-based dictatorship.

We at the HP are taking part in Black Lives Matter protests nightly in our towns. It’s the very least we can do to fight against those who want an end to America as a land of liberty and justice for all.

The U.S. is founded on the Third Article of the Bill of Rights added to our Constitution, which says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Peaceful protests (“assemblies”) which demand change from our government (“petition the government for a redress of grievances”) are not just some kind of inheritance from the past. The right to peaceful protest against injustice is fundamental to our form of government, and our rights as citizens.

Gradually since the 1980s, and the presidency of Ronald Reagan, we’ve built a harmful paradox in America: the government is at once “the problem,” and needs to be utterly dismantled so people can be free of taxes and laws they don’t like; but at the same time, people who protest publicly against the government are ridiculed or threatened as dangerous outliers.

To be frank, it’s a specific kind of protestor who is threatened as un-American: the non-white, non-male, non-Christian, and/or non-straight protestor. As racist, sexist, and homophobic people attempt to make white straight Christian male the definition of “American”, the only American who has the right to protest because he’s protesting all those other “non” people, we find that neo-Nazi marchers are basically unopposed by police while everyone else (the “nons”) are met with military-level shows of force.

These anti-“non” protestors usually claim that they are the majority and therefore have the right of tyranny over everyone else. This claim grows in ferocity as white men steadily slip into the minority of the U.S. population, and is transformed into a call for oligarchy–government by the minority, oppressing the majority.

Just two months after the birth of this blog, in May 2008, we posted the first version of our tyranny of the majority post, in which we pointed out that our three-part government is set up specifically to prevent tyranny of the majority by empowering the judiciary to protect and uphold the rights of minority citizens. We’ve reposted this almost a dozen times since then, as gay marriage was legalized in individual states, and as Americans were heard wondering why the courts “pass laws” they don’t like. America is not an oligarchy. It’s a democracy. That’s the torch you must accept as it is passed to you if you want to claim that you are patriotic.

So when we see people searching out our post on the riots that characterized pre-Revolution Boston, we feel uneasy because we fear that our condemnation of those riots will be used to condemn Black Lives Matter protests. It should not be. Here’s why.

As we put it in our post,

When you read about the events leading up to the Tea Party, you quickly become a little uncomfortable with the readiness of Bostonians to physically attack people and destroy their property as the first means to their ends.

…This willingness to use violence got mixed reviews from patriot leaders. Some felt it was justifiable because it was in protest of an unfair government. Others felt it gave the patriot cause a bad name, and attracted lowlifes who weren’t fighting for democracy. All of them knew it had to be carefully managed to keep it under control: at any moment a mob nominally in the service of colonial leaders could become a force that knew no loyalty and could not be controlled by anyone.

It is certainly unsettling for modern-day Americans to read about the tactics our ancestors were ready to use when they believed themselves to be crossed. Mob violence is not something we condone today, and so much of the violence in colonial Boston seems to have been based not in righteous anger but in personal habit and popular tradition that it’s hard to see it as truly patriotic.

Patriot leaders like Samuel Adams knew they would have to keep violence out of their official platform,  disassociating the decisions of the General Court from the purveyors of mob violence. The Tea Party would be a triumph of this difficult position.

The problem with pre-Tea Party Boston was that it relied on mob violence–people tearing down the houses of men who they felt were unjust, throwing bricks at them, pouring hot tar over their naked bodies and covering them with feathers, then forcing them to run through the streets or be beaten. That is mob violence. Those are acts of revenge. They do not further the cause of justice. They can never be actions taken in the name of justice.

Public protest is different from mob violence. Public protest can be violent or non-violent. Violent public protest is just one half-step above mob violence, because it cannot be controlled in a way that promotes justice. It is about revenge, not change.

Non-violent public protest is, by its very nature, controlled to force change rather than take revenge. Building are not burned, people are not beaten. It is the ultimate in democracy, and a legacy given to Americans by their Founders.

Unfortunately, there are always low-lifes who attach themselves to a non-violent protest, wait until it is peacefully ending, then start looting and throwing smoke bombs and forcing violence. Some do this to further their own ends of looting and/or expressing their contempt for human suffering and individual liberty. Some do it to make the protestors–the “nons”–look bad. People who have contempt for, and fear of, liberty and justice for all infiltrate the crowd to destroy the movement.

Those who protest against racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious bigotry are patriotic Americans, and the true inheritors of the American Revolution.

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Freedom of religion is not protected by the Constitution

Posted on May 4, 2020. Filed under: Bill of Rights, Politics, Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

We’re rerunning this post in light of the many ministers in the U.S. who are disobeying the quarantines in place to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus by holding religious services of more than 10 people–in some cases, many more.

One example may stand for many: in Los Angeles, Rodney Howard-Browne held a service in his Protestant Christian mega-church and, when arrested for showing “reckless disregard for human life… complained of ‘religious bigotry.’ The church maintains that the right to assemble in worship is a fundamental freedom that cannot be abridged even in an emergency, and cites early American religious dissidents, including Baptists and Quakers, as examples of the religious persecution that the nation’s founders would have found intolerable.”

This argument is so convoluted it takes time to disassemble. First, Howard-Browne and the many other Christian and Jewish religious leaders who have flouted the quarantine orders in the U.S. are actually applying the First Amendment correctly: as we explain in detail below, it protects the physical assembling of people to publicly worship in a building. This is rare. Most Americans believe that the FA protects religious belief (it does not, as we explain below).

But after that, the church’s argument goes off the rails. The right to physically assemble for worship can indeed be temporarily suspended to save lives during a pandemic. Forbidding public worship does not prevent people from practicing their religion. They may have to do it remotely, via Zoom, or privately at home, but they are still allowed to be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or whatever religious identity they possess. No one is telling them that their religion itself is not allowed–just their religious assembly. Temporarily.

Referencing the Baptists and Quakers is meant to tie their 17th-century persecution to the megachurches’ situation, but the megachurches are not being persecuted, so it doesn’t hold.

Later in the article, this statement appears:

Legal experts say that while religious groups generally have wide latitude to worship under the 1st Amendment and state-by-state religious freedom laws, rules shutting down worship are legally sound if they apply across-the-board to all types of group meetings.

This is true. The FA protects gathering to worship, but temporary suspension of all religious assembly to help curb a pandemic is the kind of good sense the Founders practiced and would appreciate. It is a general ban, not one directed only at Christians, and to challenge it goes against biblical teaching, by Jesus and Paul in the New Testament, that Christians should obey the rules their governments create. Christians always forget that teaching when it doesn’t suit them, while remembering it with a vengeance when it does (when demanding that immigration laws be enforced, for instance).

Fighting a temporary ban that’s meant to save lives should not make one “proud to be persecuted for the faith like my savior,” as minister Tony Spell in Baton Rouge claimed. They’re not being persecuted for their faith. No one is preventing them from believing in Jesus. They are simply being asked to suspend in-person worship for three months. A strong faith should be able to withstand such a minor setback.

Here’s the original post:


Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

We all recognize this as the text of the First Amendment of the Constitution. Most of us put it into our own words as “the First Amendment protects freedom of religion.” But it does not. It protects freedom of worship, which is very different.

What the First Amendment does regarding religion is: first, it forbids our federal legislature from making any laws creating an official state religion; second, it forbids our federal legislature from preventing people from worshipping as they see fit. That’s what “free exercise” means—how you worship. Whether you go to a church, synagogue, mosque, or have a prayer room in your home, you are protected. If you wear a head covering like a yarmulke or turban as a form of worship, you are protected.

The First Amendment is all about physical forms of religious worship. It comes from a time when people would burn Catholic churches or refuse to let Jewish Americans build synagogues. It stops this, and stops schools from forbidding students to wear religious clothing.

It does not protect religion itself, or as we usually put it, religious belief. It does not protect anyone’s right to believe certain things. If one’s religion prohibits homosexuality or birth control, that is a belief, not a form of worship. Belief is not protected because belief is so amorphous. One could claim any crazy notion as a religious belief and demand that it be protected. We could say that our religion says women shouldn’t ride public transportation, or men should not be allowed to use public showers, or cats can’t be kept as pets, and we would have to be accommodated.

The Founders were wise enough not to get into religious belief. They just made a safe space for public and private physical worship.

We were glad to hear someone get this in a radio interview last week. The article starts badly, with the author saying

The question under current debate is what it means to “exercise” one’s religion.

If a football coach is not allowed to lead his team in a public prayer, or a high school valedictorian is not given permission to read a Bible passage for her graduation speech, or the owner of a private chapel is told he cannot refuse to accommodate a same-sex wedding, they might claim their religious freedom has been infringed.

The first two examples are clearly not worship. They are expressions of religious belief. Only the latter is worship, concerning what happens in a house of worship. The article continues:

One of the thorniest cases involves Catholic Charities, whose agencies long have provided adoption and foster care services to children in need, including orphans. Under Catholic doctrine, the sacrament of marriage is defined as the union of a man and a woman, and Catholic adoption agencies therefore have declined to place children with same-sex couples.

Again, doctrine is belief, not worship. Marriage being between a man and woman only is a belief, not a form of worship. Doctrine cannot be protected by our federal government. The article talks many times about “freedom of religion” clashing with “freedom from discrimination”, and that’s why: when you enforce belief, you enforce discrimination because belief can reach out beyond a religion to impact others while worship can’t. Put it this way: there’s no form of Catholic worship that impacts non-Catholics because non-Catholics aren’t in Catholic churches trying to worship. But there are forms of Catholic belief that impact non-Catholics, because non-Catholics will be impacted by them without ever setting foot in a church. Gay non-Catholics will be discriminated against by anti-gay Catholics if being anti-gay (a belief) is enshrined as a form of worship, and thus given protection by the First Amendment.

“Exercising” one’s religion means worship, plain and simple, and exclusively. It’s a literal word: you exercise (move)  yourself physically to do something to worship God.

So Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute in Washington, is completely wrong to say “We may not like the claim of conscience, but you know, we don’t judge claims of conscience on whether we like the content of the claim. We are trying to protect the right of people to do what they feel they must do according to their God. That is a very high value.”

Americans may have a “right” to do “what they feel they must do according to their God”, but only when it comes to forms of worship. One political charter, like the Constitution, could not possibly protect all “values” and all “feelings” about what is right, because they will naturally conflict. And the Constitution does not deal in feelings, but in political rights.

Now here’s where the article gets good:

…Bishop Michael Curry, leader of the Episcopal Church in the United States, said he has witnessed the persecution of Christians in other parts of the world and doesn’t see anything comparable in the United States.

“I’m not worried about my religious freedom,” Curry said. “I get up and go to church on Sunday morning, ain’t nobody stopping me. My freedom to worship is protected in this country, and that’s not going to get taken away. I have been in places where that’s been infringed. That’s not what we’re talking about.”

Curry’s reference only to “freedom to worship,” however, missed the point, according to some religious freedom advocates. They say they want the freedom to exercise their faith every day of the week, wherever they are — even if it means occasionally challenging the principle of absolute equality for all.

“We can’t use equality to just wipe out one of the [First Amendment] rights,” Carlson-Thies says, “or say you can have the right, as long as you just exercise it in church, but not out in life.”

Bishop Curry gets it! He realizes that “worship”—getting up and going to church and not being stopped—is what is protected. “My freedom to worship is protected in this country”; that is correct. We were really gratified to hear him say this.

Then to have his opponents say that having “only” freedom of worship isn’t good enough is very telling, because they come right out and say they want freedom of belief—if only for themselves. They want to “exercise their faith every day of the week”? They have that right in the Constitution. What they really want is to “challenge the principle of absolute equality for all”; that is, they only want freedom of belief for themselves. Anyone whose beliefs clash with theirs should be shut down.

To say as Carlson-Thies does, that “equality wipes out rights” would be laughable if it weren’t so dire an example of double-speak destroying our democracy. Equality is “rights”. They are one thing. Our guaranteed equal rights give us… well, equality. How can guaranteeing everyone’s equal rights destroy equality?

His final statement tells us the truth: he wants to get rid of freedom of worship (“in church”) and put in freedom of belief (“in life”). But only for himself, and his beliefs. All others that clash with his would have to be discriminated against.

We need more Currys in this country, who understand that no democratic government committed to equality of opportunity can protect freedom of belief because that is the opposite of democracy. It is anarchy. Beliefs will always clash. The federal government cannot uphold any one set of beliefs over another. If equality feels like oppression to some people, we need to help them resolve that struggle. That’s the American way.

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Impeachment – let the people decide?

Posted on January 30, 2020. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

Listening to the news on NPR yesterday, we heard this:

HOST: Without being named, what are the president’s defenders saying on the record?

REPORTER: You know, they are saying that this process was flawed, that the president did nothing wrong, that he was fully within the bounds of presidential power and that the articles fall short of any sort of constitutional standard for removal.

But the argument that they are making again and again that they made at the beginning and the end of their arguments before the Senate is that there is an election just nine months away, so why not let the people decide? That’s what Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, said on the Senate floor:

PAT CIPOLLONE: What they are asking you to do is to throw out a successful president on the eve of an election with no basis and in violation of the Constitution. It would dangerously change our country and weaken – weaken – forever all of our democratic institutions. You all know that’s not in the interest of the American people. Why not trust the American people with this decision? Why tear up their ballots? Why tear up every ballot across this country? You can’t do that.

…remember our post on tyranny of the majority that we keep updating and re-posting every time gay rights are questioned? Hey, we’re posting it again!

Because what Mr. Cipollone suggests is that we bow to tyranny of the majority. He clearly says that if the majority of American voters want to elect a person who will violate our Constitution, we must let them do that. We must “trust them with that decision.” If voters don’t like violations of our Constitution, then they won’t vote for Trump again, and justice will be done.

But that’s not democracy and justice as we have established them in this country. If the majority of the people support injustice, there has to be a way to save the country from them–and there is. It’s called the judiciary, and, in this case, the impeachment process, which is a trial, and therefore overseen by the Chief Justice of our highest court.

If we concede that the majority of voting Americans want injustice (which we at the HP do not concede, but just for the sake of argument), we can’t just say “well, majority rules!” and let it be. The majority does not rule in the United States if they are attempting to institutionalize injustice. If the majority of Americans support a premise and practice that is unconstitutional, they are overruled. Because in the United States, our founding principles must be upheld, even if only by a minority.

In this moment, we must let an impeachment trial decide the matter, not the voters. Even if the majority of American voters went against Trump this fall, it would still be wrong to “let the voters decide.” Majority does not rule–the Constitution rules.


Here’s the original post, once again, ready to be fully applied to the validity of impeachment over election:

The California Supreme Court’s decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional has been met with the by-now common complaint that the Court overstepped its bounds, trampled the wishes of the voters, and got into the legislation business without a permit.

A review of the constitutionally described role of the judiciary is in order.

The famous commentator on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, talked a great deal in his books Democracy in America about the tyranny of the majority. This is when majority rule—the basis of democracy—ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public.

For example, slavery was an example of the tyranny of the majority. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation.

In each example, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.

The judiciary was created to break this grip of majority tyranny. The legislature—Congress—cannot usually break majority tyranny because it is made up of people popularly elected by the majority. But the appointed judiciary can break majority tyranny because its sole job is not to reflect the wishes of the people but to interpret the Constitution.

If the judiciary finds that a law made by the legislature perverts democracy and imposes the tyranny of the majority, it can and must strike that law down. This is what happened in California. The court found that although the majority of Californians (as evidenced by a previous referendum) had voted to ban gay marriage, that majority was enforcing and imposing injustice on the minority. So the court found the ban unconstitutional.

This is not beyond the scope of the judiciary, it’s exactly what it is meant to do.

We heard a commentator yesterday saying the California court should have left the issue to “the prerogative of the voters”. But if the voters’ prerogative is to oppress someone else, then the court does not simply step aside and let this happen.

The same people who rage against the partial and biased justices who lifted this ban are generally the same people who would celebrate justices who imposed a ban on abortion. People who cry out for impartiality are generally only applying it to cases they oppose.

So that’s what the judiciary does: it prevents the tyranny of the majority from enforcing injustice in a democracy. Like it or not, the “will of the people” is not always sacred, and sometimes must be opposed in the name of equality.




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Free speech in dangerous times

Posted on December 13, 2019. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

We were reading an article about a student at Georgia Southern University who recently gave a presentation in class in which he endorsed racism and white supremacy. You can read the article here. The abstract of the article was this:

Georgia Southern freshman promotes white supremacist ideology in a class presentation. The university says the presentation falls within his free speech rights. Now students of color say they feel unsafe because of his protected speech.

We were struck by this summary. The idea that non-white students feel unsafe because of protected hate speech is meant, we think, to represent a failure of the American system. But that is exactly the situation our Constitution and our legal precedent support and protect–even promote. Hate speech should be protected and it should make people who are targets of the hate, and people who are not targets but support liberty and justice for all, feel unsafe.

Why? Because real democracy is not a “set it and forget it” mechanism. People don’t establish a just system and then sit back while it runs. In our real democracy, people are allowed freedom of speech, even some (not all) forms of hate speech, because we didn’t want to go down the rabbit hole of someone saying that anything they disagree with is hate speech. That’s what dictators do: they say that their opponents are attacking them. The student who supports white supremacy would probably say that non-white people who protest him are using hate speech against him.

Instead, our government and laws say that most hate speech is protected for two solid reasons: first, we all have the right to freedom of speech; and next because we have laws in place that protect people against physical violence and legal discrimination based on race, sex, and religion.

And, crucially, the main reason we protect even hate speech is that outlawing it simply does not work. There will always be people who feel they can profit by hate. You cannot eradicate this human characteristic. Attempts to outlaw it only give it more power: if all hate speech is illegal, just spouting it makes the speaker a hero to the haters because the speaker seems brave–they’re risking their freedom to speak out. If it’s legal, that power is stripped away from it. So rather than outlaw it, we allow it within a system that contains it to speech alone. Speech is one thing; actual harm to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in business, relationships, society, etc., are another. The former is protected while the latter is not.

When someone promotes racism, the answer is not to silence them. The answer does not lie with the perpetrator. It lies with all those who hear the perpetrator. It’s our reaction and our response that are the solution. When we hear hate speech, the answer is not just to hound that person off the stage. When we read that non-white students feel unsafe, we can’t shake our heads and say “I wish the university would expel that student. Then the problem would be solved.” We know the problem would not be solved, because that student is not the problem–he’s just one representative of it.

The real solution is to work harder, redouble our efforts, to ensure that our actual laws are not changed to protect actual harm (as defined above). Monitor your local and state government as well as the federal government. Support candidates who vow to protect legal equity. Efforts are going on in many state legislatures to overturn voting rights, access to health care and education, and other pillars of equity. A student giving a presentation is not the problem here. The problem is the ever-present minority attempt to undermine our system, to undo liberty and justice for all, which ebbs and flows, shrinks and expands, over time. We are in a period of expansion that we need to fight.

Monitoring our system of government is hard and incremental. People feel impatient with this, and convince themselves that an immediate, violent protest will do the trick. But as we say in our post The Boston Tea Party and the tradition of American violence, that’s not the strategy that built our nation. It’s a strategy of revolution that we left behind long ago:

When you read about the events leading up to the Tea Party, you quickly become a little uncomfortable with the readiness of Bostonians to physically attack people and destroy their property as the first means to their ends. Violence was sanctioned in odd ways in colonial Boston.

…In August 1765, effigies of a British minister and an American stamp distributor (of the unpopular Stamp Act) were hung in the South End; at dusk the effigies were taken down by a crowd who then completely destroyed a building owned by the stamp distributor, went to the man’s house and threw rocks at the windows, broke in, and destroyed some furniture. When Governor Hutchinson tried to reason with the rioters, they threw bricks at him. The stamp distributor resigned the next day.

…Tea commissioners were routinely summoned to public meetings by anonymous letters which threatened their lives as well as their jobs if they did not show up. Commissioners and others deemed hostile to the patriot cause were tarred and feathered—the “American torture.”

…This willingness to use violence got mixed reviews from patriot leaders. Some felt it was justifiable because it was in protest of an unfair government. Others felt it gave the patriot cause a bad name, and attracted lowlifes who weren’t fighting for democracy. All knew it had to be carefully managed to keep it under control: at any moment a mob nominally in the service of colonial leaders could become a force that knew no loyalty and could not be controlled by anyone.

…Patriot leaders like Samuel Adams knew they would have to keep violence out of their official platform,  disassociating the decisions of the General Court from the purveyors of mob violence.

Violence for violence is the classic “two wrongs make a right” argument. Hate speech on campus or anywhere must be met with substantive, long-term action, not a brief storm of vocal outrage. Individuals are symptoms, not causes. Anyone who promotes white supremacy or any other kind of hate speech can only be successfully countered by efforts to protect the legal system and system of government that contain them and limit their hate to speech alone. Letting hate speech incidents turn into shouting matches in the street and nothing else does not fix the problem. When people finish shouting, those lawmakers who feel they have more to gain by subverting our system than protecting it will quietly go about rewriting the laws in their state or our nation to keep “minorities” down, denying them fair access to housing and jobs and education and voting.

In the article, Daniela Rodriguez, an organizer for the Savannah [Georgia] Undocumented Youth Alliance made these statements:

“He feels safe to speak up, and now I can only imagine how many more are out there with this racist mentality of hate,” said Rodriguez, who is the lead organizer for the Savannah Undocumented Youth Alliance, or SUYA, which advocates for the rights of undocumented immigrants in Georgia.

“Now they feel very comfortable, very brave to do something worse,” Rodriguez said. “The administration should do something before something else happens.”

…“That’s really a problem,” Rodriguez said. “Students of color don’t feel safe speaking up, but white supremacists feel safe.”

Rodriguez is out there doing the long, hard, invisible work of keeping our system just, and we applaud her. She was doing this work before the uproar at SGU, and will likely continue to do it long after we’ve all forgotten about it. We take slight issue with her overall message, though; yes, we can imagine there are more people out there who feel that being racist will help them in some way, and feel a little more bold about it after this student made his public stand. Maybe some white supremacists feel a little more safe now, at least at SGU or in Georgia.

But that’s the story of humankind. It seems there will never be a human society that is not plagued by members who want to profit by hate if that’s an option. The story of America, on the other hand, is people who know that we are committed by our founding principles to do better than this. People who pledge allegiance to a flag that symbolizes a republic dedicated to liberty and justice for all. People who know that the battle to live by those principles is never done. That every generation must re-commit to that battle personally. Some Americans feeling unsafe is not an indictment of our system, it’s a bat-signal to us to rise up to protect our system, to activate it to do its job, which is protecting those Americans. In America, not feeling safe is not the end of the story. It’s the catalyst to reclaim safety for all. It’s a challenge we must–and do–rise to, every time.


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What did the federalist debates do?

Posted on July 23, 2019. Filed under: Politics, The Founders, three branches of government, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Here we conclude our re-running of our colossal series on the Federalist debates that gave us our Constitution by wrapping up its impact on the U.S., in its own time, and over the centuries since 1787.


We haven’t hit all the topics of debate in this series; for example, we haven’t looked at the worthy Anti-Federalists criticisms of the Supreme Court (they balked at the idea of having an unelected, lifetime-term body that could overturn the laws of Congress as it pleased; as usual, the Federalists replied that any body in service of the just Constitution would never become tyrannical). We have also left out the demand for a Bill of Rights, which was general on both sides, Federalist and Anti-Federalist (more on that in a later series).But we have gotten a sense of the categories of debate in general: the Anti-Federalists wanted to keep government as small and, crucially, as local as possible to avoid its corruption; and the Federalists wanted to give the federal government elastic powers to meet unforeseen dilemmas in the future, as well as to control the all-too-real and familiar dilemmas the young nation was already facing.

But in a larger sense, the Federalist debates were important not for their content, but for their happening at all. After popularly elected delegates met to create a new body of national laws, the entire nation was invited to participate in the debate over their ratification as our Constitution. Every aspect of the proposed Constitution was dissected and put under the microscope, and dissenters were free to publish their dissent, their criticisms and fears, in the free press. 85 Federalist Papers were published between October 1787 and August 1788. This is a far cry from the usual press treatment of big issues today, which usually feature a flurry of intense coverage for a week or so, then a near-complete dropping off of interest. For nearly a year the nation weighed the pros and cons of the proposed Constitution and the government it would create in a public forum where no holds were barred. Then the states elected delegates to participate in ratification conventions, and in most states people thronged outside the building where the conventions met, waiting to hear what they had chosen—to accept the new Constitution or not. Over 10 months, the required 9 states voted to ratify, which the caveat that a Bill of Rights be written and added to the Constitution as the first order of business of the  new government.

This democratic process must have inspired some Americans to believe in the Federalist promise that republican virtue could be relied on  even in a large population. No one had been censored, no one arrested or imprisoned, no one lost their property or their livelihood as a result of the position they took on the Constitution. Americans must also have been inspired by the near-blinding modernity of the ideas in the Constitution, and the futuristic nation they at once created and imagined.

We have seen over the centuries since 1788 that the Anti-Federalists got a lot right; their questions about state power to counter federal power, the danger of giving any government body unlimited power to act in the name of national security, and the tendency of power to corrupt have been proven pertinent many times over. Yet we see that the Federalists’ main precept was correct: any government, even a small, local, state government, can become corrupt if people lose faith in the principles of democracy. Keeping things local is no guaranty against corruption. And we can’t rely on one segment of the population—the small farmer or, to add today’s like category, the blue-collar worker—to provide all the republican virtue. Everyone has to be raised up in the tradition and discipline of democracy. Every citizen has to be committed to upholding the Constitution. And the most committed citizens should serve in our government—not the richest or celebrity citizens. If we believe in the principles the Constitution offers, we will send people to Washington who also believe in them, and will actively uphold them in the face of temptation to corruption.

And so we leave the U.S. in 1788, with its newly ratified Constitution, and centuries ahead of it to work out the million problems old and new, expected and completely unanticipated, that would challenge the strength of that document and the commitment of those citizens. We should take with us as we go a bit of their republican virtue to solve the problems we face in our own time.

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The three branches of government, hammered out in the Federalist debates

Posted on May 31, 2019. Filed under: Colonial America, Politics, The Founders, three branches of government, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , |

Rerunning our series on the Federalist debates; hello and welcome to part 7 of what is becoming a monumental overview on the conversation that gave us our present Constitution. Rest assured that we’re closing in on the resolution of those debates, but for now, here we take a brief detour on the way to talking about how representation in the House and Senate was hammered out to discuss the three branches of government. (Again we are indebted to the powerhouse lectures on the Federalist debates of Dr. Thomas Pangle, UT Austin, for the flow of our series.)

The “three branches of government” is a phrase we all learn and know as Americans, and may be the one thing we all feel sure we understand about how our federal government works. There are three branches so that each can check and balance each other’s power. Ah, “checks and balances”—the companion to the three branches. No one part of the government can become too strong with this system.

But this is not really very intuitive. Why would one part of the government become too strong in the first place, and if all three branches are able to interfere with each other, why don’t you just get chaos? How can one branch operate if the other branches can check its power?

The Anti-Federalists were aware of this conundrum: checks on power is actually a kind of sharing of power. Why do the powers of the three branches overlap, Anti-Federalists asked? Why can the Executive (President) legislate with veto power, and act judicially with the power to pardon criminals? Why is the Legislature (Congress)  given judicial power to impeach the Executive? Why can the Legislature take on Executive power by giving the president “advice and consent” on treaties and other foreign policy, and by approving presidential cabinet appointees? And why does the Judiciary (particularly the Supreme Court) have the legislative power to write new laws?

Why not just have each branch do its own work, the Anti-Federalists proposed, and if we parcel out the powers between the branches correctly, there will be no problem with one branch becoming too powerful.

The Federalist reply was, again, as it so often was, based on an understanding of human nature. Human beings, they said, are combative and competitive. You can’t group humans into three branches of government and expect them to remain separate but equal. Inevitably, one branch will want to be the most powerful. Balance is very hard to achieve; that’s why you need checks. And the way to create real checks is to allow the branches to share some powers, to overlap in some ways, so that they must cooperate with each other sometimes. Knowing they have to cooperate with each other will be a counterbalance—or check—on the competition between the branches. To keep one branch from becoming all-powerful, the other branches have to have an inside track on it, some way to check its power. If the President didn’t have veto power, the Executive would inevitably become subordinate to the Legislature, as Congress would be able to ignore what the President wanted and duke it out with the Judiciary alone, because only the Judiciary would have the power to overturn laws. If Congress didn’t have the power to impeach the President, and the Judiciary had no way to check presidential power, then the Executive would begin to be dominant, and the president would become a tyrant/king.

As Madison puts it in Federalist Paper 51:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of [power] in [one branch of government], consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other — that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. These inventions of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the supreme powers of the State.

In short, one of the ways in which the new American republic was new and innovative was that it did not rely on having a perfect citizenry or government filled with republican virtue. The new American republic would work with human nature to better it. Instead of constantly trying to avoid conflict, our government would welcome it. If the very structure of our government includes, even depends on, conflict and competition between its branches, then the whole question of checking federal power is turned upside down: instead of having people outside the federal government (the states) constantly monitoring the federal government to make sure it’s not too powerful, and trying to reform the federal government from the outside to end its tyranny, the federal government will check itself. The federal government checks its own power by competing with itself, by having the three branches constantly making sure no one branch is too powerful. And as long as the three branches are functioning the way the Constitution says they should, they will not become corrupted and they will carry out the laws of the Constitution and we won’t have a problem with tyranny.

The key is that the Constitution as the Federalists proposed and wrote it laid out powers for the three branches that were fair and democratic. The only way the federal government could become tyrannical would be if its branches did not obey the Constitution. That would not happen, the Federalists said, with each branch being forced to obey the Constitution by the overlap of powers with other branches that would come down hard on each other if one started to get too powerful. No one branch’s members would sit back while another branch got more powerful. Thus constant competition means constant checking of power which means constant obedience to a just Constitution.

Dividing the Legislature into two bodies, the House of Representatives and the Senate, was an example of this. The biggest worry for both Federalists and Anti-Federalists (though Federalists worried about it more) was that Congress was most likely to become tyrannical because a) it was the only branch that could make laws, and b) it was the branch that the people had direct control over (remember that the Electoral College takes precedence over the popular vote in a presidential election, so electors chosen by the few, and not the common people, ultimately decide, to this day, who becomes president). The House was particularly troubling: the Constitution proposed that each state have two Senators, but the number of Representatives would be based on population, and was bound to soar past the number of Senators. Even in 1787 it was very clear that one day the U.S. House would have hundreds and hundreds of members. The House, therefore, was most vulnerable to becoming tyrannical. It would be the largest branch of government, and it would be directly elected by the people, who would never agree to its power being checked because that would be their power being checked.

So the Congress was divided in a way that satisfied the people’s demand for direct representatives (House) but also allowed a smaller body (Senate) the power to overturn House rulings. Bills generally originate in the House and then go to the Senate. The entire House might approve a bill, all 435 Representatives might vote yes, but if just two-thirds of the 50 Senators vote against it, the bill is dead. The people’s voice is heard in the House, but the voice of that educated elite, the most virtuous republican citizens who devote themselves to public service, ultimately calls the shots.

The only way for the House to get its way is to—you guessed it—cooperate with the Senate, to check its own power and work out a compromise the Senate will accept. What keeps the Senate, then, from becoming the tyrannical branch? Bills don’t aways originate in the House, so when the Senate passes a motion that goes to the House and is rejected, then the Senate has to compromise. But since most bills do originate in the House, the more common way of checking Senate power is that Senators don’t want to be seen as always contradicting the people’s voice (as represented by the House), and so will find ways to compromise with the House rather than constantly shoot it down.

With the Legislature divided and set in competition with itself, the fear that the Congress, especially the House, would become tyrannical was allayed. With its basic structure out of the way, now we can address the question of how the House and Senate would be composed so that they would fairly represent the American people… and what the definition of “the American people” should be.

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Federalist debates over the shape of the American Republic

Posted on May 20, 2019. Filed under: Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Rerunning our series on the Federalist debates; welcome to part 6, where we rebound off the Federalists’ weak attempts to claim that the federal government they envisioned could indeed have its power checked by the states (which was not really true) to their more powerhouse vision of what a modern, American republic would really mean.

We, like the Federalists, have looked at the traditional republics of antiquity and seen that they were all very small geographically, very dependent for their success on the civic virtue of their citizens, and, perhaps consequently, very short-lived. The Anti-Federalists worried that the United States was already far larger geographically and population-wise than any previous republic, and that any central, federal government would necessarily be far removed, physically and spiritually, from the heart of the people—the farmer. Anti-Federalists said that the honest, virtuous yeoman farmer was and should be the backbone of the nation, because he could be counted on to do the right thing (the merits—or lack thereof—of this dubious argument can be set aside for now). The whole point of government should be to educate the people in civic virtue by giving them local government they could be actively involved in. That could not happen in a federal state, especially one where the states had no right to check the power of the federal government. What you want in a republic, the Anti-Federalists said, is all the people involved in all the government all the time, united in their virtue and commitment. And in this argument, they were backed by historical opinion.

The Federalists rejected this. Instead, they offered the world a radical new definition of a republic. Direct popular rule, they said, is exactly what you don’t want in a republic. Why? Because whenever human beings gather together, they fight. It’s just human nature. People break into factions. They group together, united by some common interest they discover or invent, and then they want to push their own agenda, gaining more rights for themselves at the expense of the common good in general, and the “them” they see as threatening them in specific. This “us against them” mindset is unavoidable in human society. And it leads to one thing: tyranny of the majority.

We’ve discussed this concept in several places on the HP; here, the thing to focus on is that the classical republican ideal of a populace united in virtue is a complete fantasy, according to the Federalists. No population is ever going to be united, for a good or a bad goal. It will break into factions and each faction will attempt to impose its way on the others (tyranny). And even if the majority of the population is in one faction, it’s still wrong, the Federalists insist, for that majority to impose its will on others (tyranny of the majority). As we put it elsewhere, this tyranny of the majority:

…ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public. Slavery is a good example. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans and white abolitionists were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools, for various reasons. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation. In each of these examples, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice, which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.

Faction, the Federalists say, will always trump the goal of a united populace. So what do you do to get real democracy? You avoid direct rule and embrace faction.

Here’s the argument: work with factions, don’t try to suppress them with an education program to create virtuous citizens, because that will never work. Instead, embrace all the problems the Anti-Federalists see with creating an American republic—the large size of the nation, representatives working far away from their constituents, farmers not having time to travel to a far away central government. All of these things will make a new kind of republic possible. First, the large size of the nation means that many diverse people will populate the country and it will be hard for them to join together to make large factions that threaten tyranny of the majority. The large size of the nation also means that if a faction does gain traction in one region, it will likely remain in that region—it won’t spread, because the factors in its region that promoted its growth won’t be found in other regions. And in a large nation, representatives will be physically far away from the people, and that’s good because it keeps them away from the pressure of the mob, from factions banging down their doors.

And in our large nation, members of Congress will have such diverse constituencies that they will have to compromise in order to try to satisfy as many people as possible (something that gerrymandering was quickly invented to remedy). But even with gerrymandering, this did work for many decades: one great example is slavery. The two main American political parties of the first half of the 19th century, the Whigs and the Democrats, were evenly and equally represented North and South. There were no red or blue states—each region had Whigs and Democrats. Because of this, few politicians could take a bold stance on the divisive issue of slavery, because politicians North and South knew that they had pro- and anti-slavery constituents. And so there was compromise on slavery, from the big compromises we all know, like the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, to many smaller ones. Only a few people, like John C. Calhoun of South Carolina or Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania had unified enough constituencies to take hard-line stances on slavery (Calhoun for, Stevens against).

Now, we regret today that slavery was ever an issue of compromise, but those compromises did prevent a civil war from breaking out in, say, 1820, when it would have been even more devastating to the young, unstable nation than it was in the 1860s. And we see that as the sections (North and South) became more polarized throughout the 1850s, the Whig party disintegrated, its Northern members unwilling to compromise over slavery and leaving to join the antislavery Free Soil or Republican parties, and the Democratic party became a South-only party, completely devoted to promoting and protecting slavery and nothing else. The Democratic party was able to exercise tyranny of the majority over the other parties for many years because of its unity, its factional devotion to one “us against them” issue. And so the civil war came.

So the Federalists argued that faction could be controlled by sheer size, on the one hand, but also by virtue, on the other. Yes, Anti-Federalists, there is still need for citizen virtue, said the Federalists, but instead of all the citizens needing to be ideal people who rise far above human nature’s need for tyranny and faction, only a few citizens need to do that. First of all, only a few citizens really can do that, said the Federalists, people who are well-educated and devoted to justice. If we urge our best people to go into government, then not only will our government be good, but the average person will respect their leaders and their government, and will give up some of their factional mob nature and support both instead.

In a way, the federal government in this vision of a republic is like a Play-doh fun factory: the misshapen mass of factional mob demands are fed into Congress, where members of Congress shape them into good laws by focusing on what is best for the people. In go irrational, factional demands, and out come good laws. And those good laws will inspire and educate the people, and make them less factional. So public virtue does not rise from the ground up, but moves from the top down.

This was indeed a vision of the republic that was completely new. It turned classical republicanism on its head. It said that allowing the people direct rule was just a way to make sure that their destructive factional demands destroyed their government. The Federalists said that removing the government from the destructive impulses of the people was the best way to improve the people over time.

It seems clear today that the Federalists were right to dismiss the Anti-Federalists’ devotion to the classical ideal, which was based on a fantasy version of heroic farmer politicians who would never do wrong, all citizens having direct control over government, local governments that would never become corrupted, government devoted to educating its citizens rather than governing them, and sovereign states united by ties so weak that any conflict could dissolve them.

Next time we’ll look at the arguments over representation to Congress. If that one body was going to house the powerful federal government, and somehow represent all citizens fairly, it was going to have to be composed fairly, out of a huge population. This would be no easy task. In fact, before representation could even be discussed, the structure of Congress would have to be argued out.

Next time: the three branches of government–not so simple after all

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Checks and Balances and the Federalist Debates

Posted on May 2, 2019. Filed under: Politics, The Founders, three branches of government, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

Rerunning our series on the Federalist debates; here in part 5 we reach the wrangle over whether that proposed document gave the states any real power to check the power of the federal government.

As we saw in part 3, the federal government was given unlimited power to tax the states by the draft Constitution, in the name of national security. Anti-Federalists, and even some Federalists, were uncomfortable with this power. The Federalist idea was that the federal government would only tax the states heavily during times of war, and even then it would be forced to put any tax measure up for renewal every two years, so that Congress would have a chance to remove an unfair tax.

But Anti-Federalists argued that relying on a branch of the federal government (Congress) to check the power of the federal government was illogical. Congress would have to vote to check its own power to tax, and why would it? Who gives up their power like that? It would be unlikely that Congress would be that self-disciplined and have that kind of integrity.

The Federalist shot back that Congress was made up of representatives of the states. So if “Congress” was committing a crime, it was really the states committing it, because the people voted for their Representatives, who then voted (at that time) for their Senators. Elect good members of Congress and you won’t have to worry about Congress hurting the states. What happened to your faith in “republican virtue”, Anti-Federalists? The common people you see as so virtuous and protective of liberty will elect their own people to Congress, so there won’t be a problem.

The Anti-Federalists repeated their argument that any representatives who had to travel to a faraway federal government would eventually, inevitably, become corrupt, and put their own power and glory ahead of the people’s liberties. And when that happens, the states are left with no way to check federal power with the Constitution we currently have.

The Federalists tried to swagger through this argument, saying that the state legislatures had many ways to check federal power. Now, this was and is not true—the Constitution does not give the states any power to block federal legislation. It was just another version of the “republican virtue” argument, and the Federalists knew it. When the Anti-Federalists pointed this out, the Federalists responded with a shocking argument, in Paper 46.

First, they said, members of Congress will always put the states first:

“It has been already proved that the members of the federal will be more dependent on the members of the State governments, than the latter will be on the former. It has appeared also, that the [interests] of the people, on whom both will depend, will be more on the side of the State governments, than of the federal government… whilst it will rarely happen, that the members of the State governments will carry into the public councils a bias in favor of the general government. A local spirit will infallibly prevail much more in the members of Congress, than a national spirit will prevail in the legislatures of the particular States. Every one knows that a great proportion of the errors committed by the State legislatures proceeds from the disposition of the members to sacrifice the comprehensive and permanent interest of the State, to the particular and separate views of the counties or districts in which they reside. …For the same reason, [the] members of the federal legislature will be likely to attach themselves too much to local objects. …Measures will too often be decided according to their probable effect, not on the national prosperity and happiness, but on the prejudices, interests, and pursuits of the governments and people of the individual States.”

That is, just as members of state governments care more about getting benefits for their districts than they care about doing things for the good of the whole state, so members of the federal government will always be pushing their individual states’ wants and needs rather than trying to do good for the nation as a whole.

This is an odd argument for a Federalist to make: the Paper is saying that the federal government will never really benefit “national prosperity and happiness, but the prejudices, interests, and pursuits” of the states. So why have a federal government at all?

This question is begged as the Paper goes on:

“…should an [unfair] measure of the federal government be unpopular in particular States, which would seldom fail to be the case, or even a [fair] measure be so, which may sometimes be the case, the means of opposition to it are powerful and at hand. The disquietude of the people; their repugnance and, perhaps, refusal to co-operate with the officers of the Union; the frowns of the executive magistracy of the State; the embarrassments created by legislative devices, which would often be added on such occasions, would oppose, in any State, difficulties not to be despised; would form, in a large State, very serious impediments; and where the sentiments of several adjoining States happened to be in unison, would present obstructions which the federal government would hardly be willing to encounter.”

In other words, if the federal government passes a law the states don’t like, they can just refuse to obey it, and embarrass the government. This is hardly an argument that will convince the American people to vote Federalist. Again, why have the federal government if it cannot–even should not–control the states and make them obey federal law?

It only gets worse:

“But ambitious encroachments of the federal government, on the authority of the State governments, would not excite the opposition of a single State, or of a few States only. They would be signals of general alarm. Every government would espouse the common cause. A correspondence would be opened. Plans of resistance would be concerted. One spirit would animate and conduct the whole. The same combinations, in short, would result from an apprehension of the federal, as was produced by the dread of a foreign, yoke; and unless the projected innovations should be voluntarily renounced, the same appeal to a trial of force would be made in the one case as was made in the other. But what degree of madness could ever drive the federal government to such an extremity?”

Yes, the Federalist Paper is saying that if the federal government passed enough laws considered to be assaults on states’ rights and individual liberties, the states can just revolt. There can be a civil war, and the United States government can be overthrown as if it were a “foreign yoke”. (This argument, by the way, would be dredged up in 1860-1 by Southern states to justify secession, saying that it was legalized by the Constitution.)

So the power given to the states by the Constitution to check the federal government is resistance to and war on the federal government. This is hardly a system of checks and balances; it is a system of obedience or war. The Paper wraps up thus:

“The argument… may be put into a very concise form, which appears altogether conclusive. Either the mode in which the federal government is to be constructed will render it sufficiently dependent on the people, or it will not. On the first supposition, it will be restrained by that dependence from forming schemes obnoxious to their constituents. On the other supposition, it will not possess the confidence of the people, and its schemes of usurpation will be easily defeated by the State governments, who will be supported by the people.

On summing up the considerations stated in this and the last paper, they seem to amount to the most convincing evidence, that the powers proposed to be lodged in the federal government are as little formidable to those reserved to the individual States, as they are indispensably necessary to accomplish the purposes of the Union; and that all those alarms which have been sounded, of a meditated and consequential annihilation of the State governments, must, on the most favorable interpretation, be ascribed to the chimerical fears of the authors of them.” [emphasis added]

So the Anti-Federalists’ fears that the federal government will crush the state government is wrong—state governments will actually crush the federal government. How the federal government can be strong enough to hold the states together in a union, and represent them as a nation to the world, while being at the same time too weak to impose its own laws on the states for fear of civil war and disunion is a riddle.

The Federalists knew this. They tried in several Papers to address the problem that the states cannot check the federal government, but the truth was that in our Constitution they cannot, and secession and civil war are not sanctioned by the Constitution, while state obedience to federal law is sanctioned, and despite the protests to the contrary in Paper 46, if the states did try to secede the federal government would use military force to bring them back, as it did in 1861.

The Federalists wanted a strong central government, and they did not believe that it would inevitably become corrupted. They backed the radical experiment of federalism over the morass of confederation, and really did not have any way to prove to the American people that the federal experiment would work and the confederate experiment would not. They asked the American people to take it on faith that they could trust their federal government, and moved on, as we will, to their own vision of republican virtue.

Next: the Federalist vision of the American Republic

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Federalist Debates: do we need a United States?

Posted on April 26, 2019. Filed under: Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Rerunning our series on the Federalist debates; this time we look at the Anti-Federalist reaction to the Federalists’ concept of national security and its necessitating a strong centralized federal government with unlimited power of taxation. Oddly, this opposition led to accusations on both sides that the other side did not really want a United States.


The Federalists had the obvious position: the Anti-Federalists’ insistence on sovereign states wielding state militia to defend themselves was, the Federalists insisted, a clear sign that the Anti-Federalists did not really want a union. They weren’t really committed to joining together with other states to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. What the Anti-Federalists really wanted, said the Federalists, was for each state to eventually go its own way and exist as an independent republic.

The Anti-Federalists’ accusation of disunion was more subtle: in their insistence on a national security state, the Federalists themselves undermined the idea of a union by taking away citizens’ rights in the name of defense. The Federalists would tax indiscriminately, and likely impose other burdens impossible to even think of at the present time, and take away all the freedoms and all the political participation of citizens that define a republic. The Federalists would create an oligarchy in all but name.

In their argument, the Anti-Federalists were touching on an issue that actually worried the Federalists, too: republics in history had always been very small. They had to be small, reasoning went, because everyone had to be able to participate, and if you had a huge population that would be impossible (what building could hold them all in a Congress?) and if you had a large geographic footprint that would also be impossible (you would be forced to impose a random central point where the government would exist that would necessarily be far away from most of the people). The United States already had the huge footprint—just the 13 states together were much larger than any previous republic, or any previous kingdom, for that matter—and the population was bound to grow to match it. Even the individual states, as Federalist Alexander Hamilton pointed out, were already each much larger than any previous republic. Only Rhode Island was close to the small size necessary for republican government. Every other state in the Union would have to be broken up into smaller states to be true republics.

This endless splintering would spell the end of trying to create a Union. The component pieces would be so small they would feel no need to give up their government to someone else, and would only create treaties with neighboring states, for trade or for mutual protection. And if there were 39 states in the geographic area that had been occupied by just 13 states, what would happen as the U.S. expanded across the continent? You would end up with hundreds, even thousands of states, and no federal government could hold all their delegates.

While this argument made the Anti-Federalists doubt whether Union could or should be attempted, it galvanized the Federalists to argue for something that has become familiar to us today, but was new then: American exceptionalism. The United States was not like a republic of the distant past, they said. The U.S. is not ancient Greece. The U.S. is a modern republic, and it can make its own rules—it can update the definition of republic, or even redefine it. Look at those past republics, Hamilton and Madison said: they all failed. They didn’t even last very long. So why are we supposed to follow their rules? America is all about new ideas, new ways of doing things. Look at our Declaration of Independence, they said; it is the first of its kind. We are creating a new government from scratch to meet new conditions and new possibilities, in a new world of modern Enlightenment ideas. Why should we be bound by Iron Age thinking?

The Federalists acknowledged that there would be trial and error in this approach, but they made the case that the rewards were worth the risk. Let’s bind a huge landmass into a republic, they said, and find a way to represent all the people and give them an active political role nationally and locally. Let’s expand to fill this North American continent and still remain a republic. Let’s become a republic of millions. Let’s redefine what it means to be a republic, and make a new government for a new time and place.

This was an exciting argument for many Americans, but it smacked of recklessness to others. It also failed to satisfy the questions about national security—what was so new and exceptional about a government with unlimited power to tax its subjects? Isn’t that the definition of a monarchy, or a dictatorship? And what are our guarantees that a central government with that kind of power won’t unilaterally change the Constitution that gives the citizens their rights? In the end, are we re-defining republicanism, or abandoning it?

Next time, we’ll see how prescient the Anti-Federalists were about that.

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The Federalist Papers on unlimited national security

Posted on April 10, 2019. Filed under: Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

Rerunning our series on the Federalist debates; here we see how the men who supported the new constitution answered the Anti-Federalists’ concern that the strong federal government proposed by that document would degrade the republican virtue of American citizens by weakening local government, which they could take a more active, immediate role in. The Anti-Federalists made a passionate case that corruption would follow the distancing of government from the people, and challenged the Federalists to prove them wrong.


The Federalists replied by completely ignoring the whole argument as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Their response focused on foreign policy and national security. A strong central government was absolutely essential to national security, they said—there’s no point worrying about domestic citizen virtue if the United States has been destroyed by a weak foreign policy and national defense. To survive in the world, the US had to be able to negotiate treaties in good faith; other nations had to believe the US would obey international law and live up to the terms of those treaties. For that to happen, the US had to have a strong federal government that could make sure the states lived up to the terms of the treaties. Without this mechanism for good faith negotiating, the US would open itself to invasion and dissolution.

This was no imaginary scenario in 1787. Even as the Federalist debates raged, the US was in violation of its treaty with Britain ending the Revolutionary War. In that treaty, the US had agreed to either return property seized from Loyalists during the war or reimburse those Loyalists for their losses. That was not happening, because state governments were not enforcing those terms, and that was the stated reason why Britain was not removing its army from the western frontier as it had promised to do. The U.S. had also signed a treaty with Spain promising to keep U.S. citizens east of the Mississippi River, out of the lands that would one day be the Louisiana Purchase but were in 1787 Spanish territory. Americans were moving into the regions that would become the states of Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky—pressing right up to the Spanish border, and clearly intending to cross it. That could provoke a war with Spain in the west, which could activate a war with Britain in the west as well, and both countries could sweep east and divide up the nascent US between them and that would be that.

We have to have a strong federal government, said the Federalists, to enforce international treaties, deal with foreign powers to avoid war, and to organize a national defense if war cannot be avoided. A strong central government protecting the states will deter other nations from attacking individual states to pull the US apart piece by piece. Of course, the “government” itself wouldn’t fight a war: the government would have to raise a standing army.

This was political dynamite to many Americans in 1787. Getting the British standing army out of America had been a major war aim, and most Americans saw a standing army—an army maintained during peacetime—as a tool of tyranny. What government would resist using its army to keep the populace down, intimidate people, and prevent them from criticizing the government? And who would pay for it—the states? They were already maintaining their state militias; why add the expense of funding a national army? Why couldn’t the US fight any future war the way it fought the Revolutionary War, by sending states militia to join together in one army until the war was over, then to return to their states? When the Federalists added that the US would also have to have a strong navy, the call only confirmed suspicions that these forces would be used to tyrannize over the people, not protect the nation.

The standing army and navy also represented another problem: clearly, to create and maintain these armed forces, the federal government would have to tax the states. The Federalists did not mince words here. They said that the federal government must not only tax the states, but have an unlimited power of taxation.

Remember that under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government could ask the states for money, but could not levy a tax the states were required to pay. Remember also from part 2 of our series that the Anti-Federalists had criticized the idea of the federal government ever levying a tax, and made only the small concession that if a war came up the federal government could ask the states for money to fight it (without a guarantee that the states would pay it; they would, in fact, most likely have refused to pay it, focusing instead on beefing up their individual state defenses/militias). If the Constitution was adopted, that would radically change to allow the federal government to enforce any tax it liked in the name of national security.

The Anti-Federalist writing under the name “Brutus” (we do not know who this was) stated in his/her 8th essay:

“These powers taken in connection, amount to this: that the general government have unlimited authority and control over all the wealth and all the force of the union. The advocates for this scheme, would favor the world with a new discovery, if they would show, what kind of freedom or independency is left to the state governments, when they cannot command any part of the property or of the force of the country, but at the will of the Congress.”

Alexander Hamilton, rather than dissemble, agreed heartily. Yes, he said, the federal government will have unlimited authority over the “force” of the union, and over its wealth when it comes to preserving that union. In Federalist Paper 23, he said that because we cannot predict the future, and know what threats we may face, we have to be ready to face anything, and that means being ready to pay anything (all capitals are his, not ours):

“These powers ought to exist without limitation, BECAUSE IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO FORESEE OR DEFINE THE EXTENT AND VARIETY OF NATIONAL EXIGENCIES, OR THE CORRESPONDENT EXTENT AND VARIETY OF THE MEANS WHICH MAY BE NECESSARY TO SATISFY THEM. The circumstances that endanger the safety of nations are infinite, and for this reason no constitutional shackles can wisely be imposed on the power to which the care of it is committed. This power ought to be coextensive with all the possible combinations of such circumstances; and ought to be under the direction of the same councils which are appointed to preside over the common defense. … And unless it can be shown that the circumstances which may affect the public safety are reducible within certain determinate limits; unless the contrary of this position can be fairly and rationally disputed, it must be admitted, as a necessary consequence, that there can be no limitation of that authority which is to provide for the defense and protection of the community, in any matter essential to its efficacy that is, in any matter essential to the FORMATION, DIRECTION, or SUPPORT of the NATIONAL FORCES.”

If the threats we face as a nation are “infinite”, then our capacity to respond to those threats must also be infinite. You can’t say, We’ll allow the federal government to tax the states to raise $100K for national defense in 1788 because that’s how much we needed in 1787. You can’t even say, let’s double it to $200K just in case. You cannot ever put a limit on the power of the government to tax the states to defend the nation because then you run the risk that what you need is $700 million, and you only have $200K.

This seemed preposterous to most Americans. How could so unexpected a threat arise? What on earth was going to change to make such huge amounts necessary?

In Federalist Paper 34, Hamilton answered this by saying, I don’t know. Who knows? Who can know the future? Who can say what unimaginable threats might arise in 50 or 100 years? You have to remember, Hamilton said, that we are talking about how the US government will function not just in our lifetimes, but for hundreds or even thousands of years:

In pursuing this inquiry, we must bear in mind that we are not to confine our view to the present period, but to look forward to remote futurity. Constitutions of civil government are not to be framed upon a calculation of existing exigencies, but upon a combination of these with the probable exigencies of ages, according to the natural and tried course of human affairs. Nothing, therefore, can be more fallacious than to infer the extent of any power, proper to be lodged in the national government, from an estimate of its immediate necessities. There ought to be a CAPACITY to provide for future contingencies as they may happen; and as these are illimitable in their nature, it is impossible safely to limit that capacity. In framing a government for posterity as well as ourselves, we ought, in those provisions which are designed to be permanent, to calculate, not on temporary, but on permanent causes of expense.

That is, the federal government must have the “capacity” to expand its expenditures when necessary, with no set limits. You can’t limit the government of 2014 to a certain amount of taxation because that’s what worked in 1787; we know, Hamilton says, that what works in 1787 is not going to work in 2014—it just can’t. Change is constant, and we can’t handcuff the federal government by forcing it to remain in 1787 as time marches on. We also can’t force the federal government to beg the states to approve each and every change it needs to stay current, or risk the states refusing that approval.

This Federalist argument is very much alive today. The federal government has defended NSA surveillance on the basis of anticipating threats we can’t even imagine. Some Americans believe that national security should trump personal privacy and liberty; others argue that the federal government should have to justify its actions and expenses to the public. For some Americans, no expense is too much if it is spent to protect the nation from threats real or imagined; others demand oversight of national security expenditures. Hamilton was prescient in his understanding that the definition of “threat” could change beyond all rational expectation. Whether he was right in saying the federal government must have the freedom and power to meet those threats by any means necessary is still a question in the United States today.

Next time we’ll see how this argument led to charges of trying to destroy the union being made by both sides.

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