What This Is…
Issue #8- July 3, 2011
My thoughts on the upcoming 4th of July celebration, because I really need to use my Political Science degree somehow. I also couldn't look at another "Don't Tread on Me" flag or listen to another mangled version of US History without saying something. As long as this entry is, I tried to be as concise as possible and didn't support my ideas with tons of examples. I could provide sources and other supporting details if you want a longer entry, but figured this would be enough for now. I welcome your thoughts and counterpoints to my ideas.
Happy Independence Day!!…
This weekend we celebrate our nation's independence. We are 235 years removed from the original date of the signing of a historic document. Over the course of time our country has endured many challenges and growing pains. On any anniversary there is a tendency to look back at our collective past and try to paint a picture that fits our specific interests and needs. This is not unusual, but given our current level of political and social conflict the past becomes not a source of comfort, but rather a weapon to be wielded against people with differing viewpoints.
We currently find ourselves in a period of tremendous upheaval and challenges to our democracy. I don't feel that I'm being overly dramatic when I say that. We are at a crossroad in our development as a nation. Things are happening that cause us to wonder what the future holds for us. We have alleged violence in our highest court's chambers, legislators unable to negotiate and reach any type of compromise, massive protests, a loss of confidence in the electoral process, and other signs of discontent. Our country's political scene has returned to the mid-1800's when the issue of slavery divided us.
"These are the times that try men's souls," Thomas Paine wrote these words in Common Sense, January 10, 1776. We are facing a situation of growing fear and anger. I read the comments after on-line news articles, on social media and in other venues dealing with current events and am absolutely appalled with the lack of empathy, knowledge and common courtesy displayed. Talk radio is divided with hosts unable or unwilling to discuss issues and relying on talking over people, not with people. Ben Franklin is credited with saying "Whate'ers begun in anger ends in shame." (- Poor Richard's Almanack, 1734) We as a nation need to wake up and realize that our government's strength lies not in dictatorial edicts, but rather in negotiation and compromise.
That being said, what happens when we are faced with a government that is not responsive to the people? What happens when we face issues that can't be compromised on? Once again we look to the past and see times of revolution and even civil war. However, before these more extreme measures are taken there are always times of discussion and protest that precede them. Our Founding Fathers (John Quincy Adams excluded) didn't rush to revolution. Multiple efforts to compromise on slavery were made. In both these cases efforts failed to resolve the issues at hand peacefully, however, I believe they failed for different reasons. Efforts to compromise with England were undermined by multiple issues, but could have been resolved had the different groups involved proceeded differently. In the case of slavery the efforts failed because there was a moral wrong existing that couldn't be compromised on. Lincoln stated, 'I believe this Government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free." (June 16, 1858 House Divided Speech)
As we celebrate our Independence Day we are obligated to look to our past for guidance while keeping in mind that our present is in many ways different. History mirrors itself, but doesn't repeat exactly. Events can occur in similar ways, but proceed differently because of different players, situations and reality. If we try and use the past as our only guide without an eye on the present and future, we will make choices that would be good for people in the past.
The level of fear and anger that we have reached results in name-calling and attempts to control the way our history is presented. Many people will speak this weekend about what makes America great. They will tell you that it is our self reliance, our ability to do what needs to be done without government that made us into a world power. They will speak about traditional American values and how those values are under attack.
At the same time they will base their rhetoric on a flimsy understanding of the political philosophy they tout. Patrick Henry spoke to the Virginia Convention in 1776 and said:
"No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the house. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony. The question before the house is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at the truth, and fulfill the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the Majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings."
The Declaration, Then and Now…
The Declaration of Independence was written for a variety of reasons. At its heart it shared our reasons for unhappiness with English rule with the world. It provided a reasoned argument for us to end our colonial relationship with England and made a strong statement for independence using the political language of the time. Funny how the words from the late 1700's ring so true here in Wisconsin today. Here are a sample of parts of the document with some side comments by me:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal (therefore money = speech seems illogical- why should a rich person have more "speech" than another person?), that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…"
Some of the complaints against the King listed in the Declaration:
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them. This refers to the fact that the King refused to recognize laws passed by the elected representative bodies in the colonies unless directly approved by him. It shouldn’t be interpreted as support of Gov. Walker's actions. However, I can see some of our conservative friends using this passage without explanation.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures. (Sound familiar- Open Meetings anyone?)
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries. (Walker or WMC?)
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people… Read the budget and see how many new administrative posts are created.
The section of complaints closes with…
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Thus mankind, notwithstanding all the privileges of the state of nature, being but in an ill condition, while they remain in it, are quickly driven into society."
However, Locke also wrote;
"…The power of the society, or legislative constituted by them, can never be supposed to extend farther, than the common good; but is obliged to secure every one's property, by providing against those three defects above mentioned, that made the state of nature so unsafe and uneasy. And so whoever has the legislative or supreme power of any common-wealth, is bound to govern by established standing laws, promulgated and known to the people, and not by extemporary decrees; by indifferent and upright judges, who are to decide controversies by those laws; and to employ the force of the community at home, only in the execution of such laws, or abroad to prevent or redress foreign injuries, and secure the community from inroads and invasion. And all this to be directed to no other end, but the peace, safety, and public good of the people."
In other words, we need government to protect ourselves. However, the best government is limited in scope. Taken strictly in this context many have argued against government regulation and see rules and regulations as intrusive and even against our nation's guiding principles. This is the danger of taking historical ideas out of the context of the times and applying them to modern day.
The world of 1776 was very different than the world of 2011. There is no way the leaders of that time could ever foresee the level of interconnectedness and the speed of life today. True, the colonies were part of a global empire and worldwide trade in goods and ideas was growing. However, most people still lived lives that were based locally. The need for government regulation of food, environmental impacts and other similar issues were not there at that time. I would say that the need to regulate economic endeavors was present and there is significant support for the idea that the policies which lead to our revolution were influenced and driven by corporate greed. Some things never change.
To use the argument that the, "Government is best which governs least (attributed to multiple sources)," is fine as long as one is reasonable about what "least" means. I personally am not willing to trust others when it comes to my food, water, air, work place, roads, etc. I am especially unwilling to trust others who stand to profit from one of these things. That is why I find the current conservative movement so unsettling. Historically, when business is given free reign, a majority of people suffer.
Political thinkers of the revolutionary time period had lots of ideas about what should happen if government fails in meeting its obligations to the people. When you look at the complaints the people of 1776 had and compare them to the issues in Wisconsin today the similarities are striking. We have a government that is not responsive to a majority of its citizens (based on polling data). Our majority party isn't following the rule of law established over time. Restrictions are being placed on the electorate in a seemingly arbitrary manner. The good of the majority of people is ignored and the rights of a few are emphasized.
Of course this is my opinion and based on my perception of events. However, given that any of the above allegations are true, what would our early leaders say?
We need government regulation and protection
"Democracy will soon degenerate into an anarchy, such an anarchy that every man will do what is right in his own eyes and no man's life or property or reputation or liberty will be secure, and every one of these will soon mould itself into a system of subordination of all the moral virtues and intellectual abilities, all the powers of wealth, beauty, wit and science, to the wanton pleasures, the capricious will, and the execrable cruelty of one or a very few." - John Adams, An Essay on Man's Lust for Power, August 29, 1763
Separation of powers, checks and balances
"The preservation of a free government requires not merely that the metes and bounds which separate each department of power be universally maintained but more especially that neither of them be suffered to overleap the great barrier which defends the rights of the people. The rulers who are guilty of such an encroachment exceed the commission from which they derive their authority and are tyrants. The people who submit to it are governed by laws made neither by themselves nor by an authority derived from them and are slaves." - Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, 1785 James Madison
Education and a knowledge of how our leaders make their decisions. Maybe even a knowledge of who funds their campaigns and where their policy ideas come from.
"Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers." - A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, 1765
Our Founding Fathers were patient, to a point.
Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne! In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation.
Patrick Henry, Speech to the Virginia Convention, March, 1776
Patrick Henry, Speech to the Virginia Convention, March, 1776
"We have it in our power to begin the world over again." - Common Sense, January 10, 1776 Thomas Paine
For those who say that recalls are not needed or merited read this from John Locke.
Great mistakes in the ruling part, many wrong and inconvenient laws, and all the slips of human frailty, will be born by the people without mutiny or murmur. But if a long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie under, and see whither they are going; it is not to be wondered, that they should then rouze themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the ends for which government was at first erected."
John Locke 2nd Treatise on Government.