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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What is virtuous Republicanism? in the Federalist debates

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

Rerunning our series on the Federalist debates; here we look at the pros and cons of a strong federal government as argued at the time.

The Anti-Federalists wanted to keep government local. They did not want to change the sections of the Articles of Confederation that gave power to state governments and relegated the federal government to handling defense and foreign relations. That is, they wanted a confederation, not a union, of sovereign states that decided on their own whether they would heed calls from the federal government for taxation, or a military call-up, or a foreign treaty, etc. For instance, as we’ll see later in this series, when Alexander Hamilton proposed that the federal government must have the right to tax the states, unilaterally, in time of war, the Anti-Federalist response was to say, why not have the federal government go to the states when it felt it needed to raise money for war and the states would vote on whether to pay it. To us today that seems unworkable at best, crazy at worst, but it is clearly grounded in English law: the monarch had to go to Parliament to ask it to levy a tax to fight a war. This was a check on the monarch’s power meant to keep a monarch from bankrupting the kingdom in endless or losing wars. Parliament decided whether it would grant the money or not, considering whether the tax was in the best interest of the people. On the other hand, it was the breakdown of this system that had led to the English Civil War in 1642.

It’s obvious that the Anti-Federalists were worried that a strong federal government would begin to tyrannize over the states, as the British government in London had tyrannized its American colonies. But that British tyranny was just a symptom of a larger problem to the Anti-Federalists: the loss of virtuous republicanism.

Enlightenment political theorists described a successful republic as fueled by the private virtue of its citizens. Serving the state selflessly, devoting one’s energies to ensuring that the state fulfilled the common good, was an end in itself in the ideal/successful republic. All republics in history had failed, said the theorists, because civic virtue broke down—corrupted by power, or weakened by lazy inactivity. Of all the types of government, republicanism alone depended on the dedication of its citizens to the greater good and virtue as an end in itself.

This kind of republican virtue could only exist locally, according to the Anti-Federalists. When do people care about government? When they own it. When local people in local bodies make local rules, when you know your representatives and live next door to them and do business with them, then government is honest and effective, because it is truly representative, and any participant who goes against the common good is quickly voted out of office. State governments run by locally elected reps who live among their constituents can’t go wrong, especially in America, where the common people had proved their great republican virtue during the Revolutionary War by keeping their elected governments running and their local militias fighting.

The chances of local state governments remaining uncorrupted were made even greater by the fact that state reps would be elected by, and would mostly be themselves, farmers. Thomas Jefferson is the most famous of the advocates of the virtue of the yeoman farmer. A romanticized view of men who were “close to the land, close to God” was very popular during the Federal period, and continues on to a certain extent to the present day. To quote just one of Jefferson’s typical effusions:

“Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth.”

(How a man who saw most farming done by enslaved men and women whom he described as incapable of virtue could wax so poetically so often is a riddle.) At any rate, farmers were seen as the polar opposites of bankers and businessmen: farmers did not make their money off of other people, did not get rich collecting interest on debt, etc. Farmers made an honest living working the land. Therefore, farmers should be the heart and soul of local government. Of course, in the late 1700s, the American economy was predominately agricultural, and most people were farmers, so to have a government run by farmers was not only possible, but natural, and truly representative.

To remove government from the states to a federal government, no matter how centrally located, was to strike a blow against republican virtue. Reps sent to that distant national capital would be necessarily distanced from their constituents, and lose touch with them. Local interests in one state would have to fight with the local interests of another state in the capital. State needs could be overruled by cooked-up “national needs”. Traveling to and from the capital, in an era when the nation had few good roads, meant reps would be on the road or in the capital most of the time, not living amongst their constituents. Farmers would not be able to be away from their farms for months at a time to do this, so citizens might stop electing farmers, people like them, and start electing urban businessmen who could wheel and deal more effectively, but, as a result of that, politics would become sleazy. And, crucially, local needs and local focus would take a back seat to national needs and national focus, which impinged on the sovereignty of the states—when you focus on national laws and taxes, you prioritize the national over the state/local, and the states become cogs in a machine rather than separate political entities. As the nation grew, any capital, no matter how centrally placed in 1787, would become distant and out of touch with its far-flung state citizens, and then tyranny inevitably beckoned.

Again, we recognize here an argument that has never died out of American politics. “Washington insiders” are “out of touch” with “the American people”, “Wall Street” tyrannizes over “Main Street”, and the world “outside the Beltway” has nothing in common with the world inside it. “Big government” is ruining the nation, and government itself “is the problem”. We still even like to idealize farmers, at least in produce and truck commercials. And the push to weaken the federal government and return more power and sovereignty to the states has been going strong since the 1980s.

But the belief that state governments, because they are smaller than the federal government, cannot become corrupt was strange in 1787 and it remains strange today. Power corrupts, and any entity given power runs the risk of corruption. We see corruption at all levels of our government, from city halls to state legislatures. If the federal government were wiped away tomorrow, and the states ran everything, local corruption levels would rise commensurately. Mayoral elections in cities large and small are generally characterized by claims that the candidates do not reflect or represent the people; the same thing happens in elections for state government and governorships. Our population is too diverse for any one person, to fully represent all her/his constituents. And gerrymandering and redistricting efforts make sure that no group of legislators can accurately represent the people of their state.

Yet that is exactly why we can’t completely discount the Anti-Federalists’ desire to pin government to citizen virtue. If everyone felt they really had ownership in their local government, they would work harder to safeguard that government. They would vote, and run for office, and insist on reps who really represented them. A representative democracy like ours is a rarity in the world; only a relative handful of nations really have truly representative democracies. And it does rely on its citizens’ virtue: they have to really believe in life, liberty, and justice for all, and be ready to put their fortunes and even their lives on the line for it. Our current federal government, as well as our state governments, work well only when stocked by people who have that kind of virtue.The Anti-Federalists were right to insist on this.

So how did the Federalists answer these domestic concerns? Find out next time.

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The Federalist papers, the federalist debates

Posted on February 26, 2019. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to a replay of our series on the Federalist debates. We have to admit that this was a topic we avoided for a long time here on the HP; somehow these impassioned, immediate debates over the very nature of our founding principles, carried out with and for the general public, have failed to capture the imagination. Part of this, perhaps, is because the Federalist debates are one of the worst-taught areas of U.S. history in American schools. You’re told there was a debate over whether to have a strong federal government, the Anti-Federalists are represented as idiots fighting an obviously good idea, and you’re sat down to read a laboriously expressed Federalist Paper or two, and that’s that. The debates seem pointless, and the Papers seem unreadable.

The debates weren’t pointless, however, and the Anti-Federalists weren’t idiots. And “Federalist” search activity here at the HP has moved us to repost. Enjoy!

 

The Papers can be dense: classical references; long, semi-historical digressions; sentences that are a full paragraph long, using more semi-colons than even the HP would dare. But generally when they have a point to make they hammer it home with minimal rhetoric and maximum good sense. So we’re going to quote from some of the Papers in this series, to make our own points. (We are also indebted to the powerhouse lectures on the Federalist debates of Dr. Thomas Pangle, UT Austin, for the flow of our series.)

We do this because Americans in the 21st century are still having the Federalist debates. The questions the anti-Federalists raised are still valid today, and not just for that minority of Americans who want to dismantle the federal government completely. The questions the anti-Federalists raised, and the answers the Federalists gave, are eerily modern, and the most eerie part is that Federalists like Hamilton explicitly stated in 1787 that they were thinking forward hundreds of years, trying in vain to fully anticipate the problems the nation would face centuries after them, and trying to build in protections for the government and liberties for the people to preserve freedom in the face of threats they could not even imagine. As Hamilton put it, in Papers 23 and 34 (the capital letters are his, not ours):

“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… 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… 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.”

These remarkable statements not only anticipate cyber-age threats no one could have dreamed of even 40 years ago, let alone 227 years ago; they also describe an argument about government power that is whipsawing American society today as we face the reality of NSA surveillance.

But that’s leaping ahead. Let’s start this series with a quick update to refresh the collective memory:

The Articles of Confederation adopted during the Revolutionary War by the Continental Congress established, as the name says, a confederacy: a league of friendship between sovereign political entities—in this case, the 13 states. The federal government, which consisted of a single-house Congress, did not impinge on the sovereignty of these states very much: it was authorized to handle foreign policy, national defense, disputes between states, interstate commerce, and legislating for new territories under U.S. control but not yet organized into states.

There was general concern that the states were headed for disputes that the weak federal government would not be able to resolve. Populist state governments were making zealous proclamations/warnings about maintaining their sovereignty, and it seemed increasingly likely that if the U.S. did face an external threat, like war with Britain or Spain, the federal government would be powerless to stop each individual state from going its own way—making separate peace treaties, or joining blocs of states that followed different policies, or refusing to pay federal taxes needed to levy an army in favor of prepping its own militia to defend its own borders and nothing else.

James Madison of Virginia and Alexander Hamilton of New York were the main leaders of a convention called to revise and edit the Articles of Confederation in the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia. The delegates to the convention met in secret, which worried many Americans, who were afraid they would make and pass substantial changes to the government without public input, and present the new Articles as a done deal after the fact. Those fears were realized in part when the delegates decided not to revise the Articles but to scrap them completely and write a new document. But fears that the new document would be railroaded through were not realized.

This is one of the amazing facts about the Constitution: the finished document was not referred back to the existing Congress for approval (many Americans think that members of Congress met at the convention, but while some delegates were also members of Congress, most were not; they were specially appointed by their states to go to the convention). The new Constitution was also not sent to the state governments for ratification. Instead, the proposed Constitution was sent directly to special conventions set up in each state and made up of delegates elected directly by the people. The Founders’ faith in the people, and their dedication to creating a republic where the people ruled, was unprecedented in western history. As the first Federalist Paper put it:

“It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.”

In other words, the American people will decide what system of government they will have because they have earned that right, “by their conduct and example”. A people so devoted to liberty, as proved by their conduct in fighting the Revolutionary War, must be “capable of establishing good government from reflection and choice.”

And so the debates in the special conventions began, and the Anti-Federalists and Federalists began their writing campaign to instruct and sway the people. The Federalist Papers, as well as the many documents written by the Anti-Federalists (they have no one unifying name) were published in newspapers and broadsides from October 1787 through August 1788, as the state ratifying conventions met, to educate the people about the issues at stake so they could influence their state conventions. It was a remarkable campaign on both sides to impact a vote not with lies, scandal, rumors, or personal attacks, but with logic, reason, examples, and thoughtful questions. Passions ran high, to be sure, but the passion was for the truth, and the best form of government, not for personal or party gain.

We won’t address every issue canvassed during the campaign to ratify or reject the Constitution, but we will look at those which are most pertinent to us today, in our “remote futurity”, so that we can call upon the Founders once again to help us decide our important issues of good government.

Next time: the pros and cons of big government

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The Constitution and Slavery

Posted on April 7, 2008. Filed under: Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , |

We the people… whenever we see it, we ask ourselves who they were. We ask ourselves about slavery. Just like the Founders did.

 

For people who are often accused of “not caring” about slavery, the Founders spilled a lot of ink arguing about it. Just as the Declaration of Independence dealt with slavery, so did the Constitution. People still thought and hoped slavery was just about to die on its own. But since it hadn’t died, yet, the same problem arose as had arisen in 1776: how do we deal with slavery when founding a nation on natural rights?

 

Well, the answer is to get rid of slavery. So why didn’t they?

 

Because the slaveholding states threatened to break up the Union if slavery was abolished. The question at the time was, do you want an imperfect United States or no United States at all? The states in which slavery was protected, where slavery was crucial to the state economy and social structure (almost all southern states), were serious in their answer. They were not about to remain part of a union that abolished slavery.

 

When you look at all the demands slave states made at the Constitutional Convention, you see both how radically they would have changed the United States, and how hard antislavery delegates had to fight to control them. Slaveholding states wanted to maintain or expand the slave trade (keep slave ships going to and from Africa) and hopefully take it over and run it themselves, supplying the world with slaves. They wanted no federal restrictions on slavery in the western territories, and a specific section of the Constitution prohibiting any federal restriction of the rights of slaveholders—that is, a guaranty that slavery would not just be allowed, but allowed to flourish. It was clear that the southern states would leave the union if a national emancipation policy was ever attempted. See Joseph Ellis’ fantastic book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation for a full examination of this.

 

So we see that it wasn’t so much “the Founders” or “uncaring northerners” or even “the Constitution” that allowed slavery to exist. It was a concrete group of southern slaveholding delegates and politicians, led by James Madison, who threatened to leave the Union and destroy it if slavery was not protected.

 

We know that organizing representation to Congress was the biggest headache facing the delegates, and slavery was part of it. The solution of the three-fifths clause, which counted three-fifths of the number of enslaved Americans as population, is shameful. But delegates accepted it, relying on the imminent death of slavery to make the question moot, and again, unwilling to sacrifice the entire experiment of America over slavery. Their feeling was, get the nation stabilized, and then we can perfect it. We see that as a cop-out, but at least it came after 12 years of constant churn and effort. We often lose our collective will today after much less time and almost no effort at all.

 

While slavery was protected from abolition by the Constitution, and the slave trade could not be abolished for 20 years after ratification (1808), the document itself never uses the word slavery. Why? Because people were embarrassed and ashamed to put that word into the Constitution. Because they knew it was wrong. Just as the Declaration put in Happiness instead of Property, the Constitution put in interests instead of slavery.

 

The Constitution was written; now it had to be ratified by popularly elected state legislatures. And here’s where we see that it wasn’t a small group of rich white wig-wearers who dictated the course of American history.

 

The American public was utterly passionate about the Constitution. They weren’t going to just ratify whatever they were given. And they weren’t going to let the issue get strangled in red-tape and delay. In short, they didn’t leave it to the politicians. In Pennsylvania, when the state assembly fell short of a quorum to call a state ratifying convention, a mob dragged two assemblymen from their homes to the State house, forcing them to stay while the assembly voted.

 

Americans also clamored for a Bill of Rights. Why? Because they wanted those original natural rights to be explicitly protected by the new government. Americans were not pretending to carry the revolution from the battlefield to the legislature; they were really doing it.

 

With human rights on their minds, Americans faced the compromises over slavery. Most were not happy with them. But in the end, most Americans agreed that the experiment was not worth abandoning over slavery. It seems like a cop-out to us today, knowing that it would take a civil war to end slavery, but it is actually true that in 1787, many Americans believed slavery would die out within a generation. And what would guaranty that process more firmly than establishing a democratic union? What good would it do to insist on abolishing slavery now, thought people in 1787, thus driving the southern states out of the union? That way, slavery was guaranteed to go on in the south. But if those southern states were coaxed into the democratic union, slavery would end. Northern states were passing gradual emancipation acts; so would the south.

 

The Constitution was ratified, but it was close. The nation was established. It was a remarkable achievement. We’ve seen that the nation really was founded on revolutionary ideals, and that all those ideals were not betrayed by the Founders. The inclusion of slavery in the new nation was a problem and a mistake, but it was not the result of apathy or complacence. Slavery was protected because the Founders, and most Americans, could not bear to destroy the nation by abolishing slavery and losing the southern states of the union.

 

Today, we think that would have been preferable. Why not just lose the south and create a free union with the states that were left? It would have been better. But in reality, if the southern states had seceded in 1787, the likelihood of the remaining states banding together was small. We’ve seen that the states had only the loosest ties with each other, and almost no loyalty to each other. If some left, others would go, too, unable to resist the lure of sovereignty. Americans at the time knew this.

 

The Constitution sums up the achievements of the Founding Generation, both the men in the paintings and the people at large. No people had ever formed a working government based on natural rights before. Hammering out ways to guaranty fair representation to the government, prevent government tyranny, and protect individual rights was blood, sweat, and tears difficult. Ending slavery, so insidiously entwined in southern American life and northern American commerce, “was a challenge on the same gigantic scale as these achievements.” [Ellis 108] It was not done in one generation, not even a generation so remarkable as the Founding Generation. But the wheels were set in motion. A person born in 1787 could live to see the Civil War fought, and slavery ended; the span of one long life was all it took to finally make good on the Constitution’s promise of liberty and equality.

 

So. Can you be proud of the Founders of your nation? Yes. Absolutely. They did the impossible. And by Founders I mean all Americans, not just the men in the paintings. The Founding Generation. The challenge of creating the United States was mind-boggling. We take it for granted today. We take the intelligence and creativity and passion and struggle of the Founding generation for granted. As if the rules were clear and they just had to write them down.

 

But America is exceptional. An exception to all rules. We were the first people to found a long-term working government dedicated to the preservation of natural rights. Today as I write, nations with this form of government are still in the minority. It’s very hard to live up to the principles of natural rights. We fail at it all the time. But we do also succeed at it. And we have a responsibility to do so.

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The Articles of Confederation: Not Totally Lame!

Posted on April 7, 2008. Filed under: Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , |

The problem the Founders grappled with when writing the Articles of Confederation was how to create a workable government without authorizing a tyranny. How do you keep life, liberty, and happiness for all while subjecting all to a central authority which must make general laws?

 

We’re so used to hearing about this struggle that it bores us, because we know the problem was eventually solved by the Constitution. It’s like knowing how a book ends before you read it. There’s no suspense for us. No tension. Plus, with hindsight, the solutions the Constitution came up with seem so obvious. But think about it. Usually  new governments struggle not with how to make everyone happy, but with individuals fighting for power. Each revolutionary leader is fighting to establish his faction, to grab power. The people are just a labor source, mob power, or cannon fodder.

 

But in America, the argument, struggle, and problem was not how to get power but how to give it away. How to have a workable government that didn’t trample people’s natural rights. The Founders would not take the easy way out and just give someone power to tell the people what to do. They wouldn’t even allow an executive branch to be created, because they were afraid if power was represented by the body of one person, he would become a dictator not only from his own greed, but because the people themselves would gladly give up their rights to a powerful leader. The Founders resisted the urge to fall back on the familiar.

 

And all this in a time of war. The Revolution was not going well in 1777, when the Articles of Confederation were written. If ever there was a time when people might be forgiven for assigning power to one person who could unify and lead them, it was then. But even in this time of ultimate crisis, when the federal government was broke and could not pay Washington or his army, the men who were dying for the independence of America, the Founders would not institute unfair taxes, would not assign an executive, would not give up on trying to establish a fair government, would not give up on the ideals of revolution. War is usually the ultimate excuse for abuse of power, or failure to live up to high ideals. Not for the Founders.

 

And, when the Founders finally had the Articles of Confederation, and saw that they just didn’t create the best government for the people, they came back and went through the whole agonizing process again, and wrote a new set of rules—the Constitution. That’s dedication. That’s inspiration. That’s stamina.

 

So instead of seeing a string of half-assed failures leading up to the Constitution, we should see a gritty resolve to make the dream a reality that no amount of hardship could weaken.

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