Zero progress in American politics since 1776

I’ve been listening to America’s Founding Fathers, a lecture series by Allen Guelzo, a professor at Gettysburg College.

It turns out that all of the things that Americans fight and fret about today were issues around the time of the country’s creation (i.e., the traitorous and illegal secession from Great Britain).

People questioned whether a republican form of government made sense. From the notes:

… there had been only a few examples of successful republics in human history—particularly, Rome and Athens—and they offered only a handful of useful rules for guidance:

First, a republic must be harmonious. It cannot be divided in purpose; it must be guided by a common vision of the public good.

Second, it must be homogeneous—composed of citizens who are ethnically, economically, and socially more or less equal in wealth and status.

Third, a republic must be small, if only because harmony and homogeneity break down whenever the boundaries of a republic are drawn to include too many different kinds of people or so much territory that people cannot keep vigil over their fellow citizens.

Fourth, every citizen of a republic must be independent and self-sufficient enough to be able to occupy a public office.

Our Founding Fathers, including George Washington, questioned whether Americans were sufficiently virtuous to govern themselves. With the average person being primarily concerned with making money and quite a few folks “corrupt, selfish, and indolent,” how could the resulting conglomeration of these folks ever be sustainable? Washington, 1783:

the want of energy in the Federal government, the pulling of one state and party of states against another and the commotion amongst the Eastern people have sunk our national character much below par [and] brought our politics and credit to the brink of a precipice.

(i.e., we’ve been on the brink of a precipice for more than 230 years!)

During the Confederation period, Americans attacked political opponents, e.g., Robert Morris, the rebellious colonies’ first “superintendent of finance,” by alleging that people with high-level executive jobs were enriching themselves via corruption.

Politicians were not necessarily examples of traditional virtue in private matters:

[President of Congress Thomas] Mifflin retired from his congressional presidency and spent most of the remaining 16 years of his life in Pennsylvania politics and in what one critic described as “a state of adultery with many women.” Several towns and structures were named for him, but he also burned through most of his family’s fortune and ended up hiding from bill collectors.

The course is replete with examples of “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” (Samuel Johnson). Patrick Henry:

In 1774, when he called on the House to begin arming Virginians for resistance to the Crown, Henry spoke his most famous words: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me … give me liberty, or give me death!”

Paying 1-2 percent of income in total tax (see this article Foreign Policy on what American colonists paid) was an intolerable state of “slavery” and equivalent to being in “chains,” for Henry, “a slaveholder throughout his adult life” (Wikipedia).

Early Americans complained about concentrations of wealth and considered themselves fortunate that the disparities were not as large as in Europe.

States maintained a degree of independence and sovereignty to a degree that would be unimaginable today. They would use this to issue their own paper currency, help their citizens escape paying debts to Britons or citizens of other states, and weasel out of their own financial commitments to the Continental Congress.

The bad news is that we’re not making any progress, but maybe the good news is that the disputes that described as “crises” every day in the New York Times were with us in the 1780s.

4 thoughts on “Zero progress in American politics since 1776

  1. Americans are rightfully proud of their written constitution. Not only is it the oldest in the world, but it is also incredibly stable, a testament to the vision of its drafters. Marcel Gauchet compared the US, which put constitution before the bill of rights, with France, which did the opposite and is now on its fifth, This is all the more remarkable given the wide divergences between states and how large the United States are.

    We forget how radical an innovation the notion of a written constitution was in its day. The United Kingdom, after all, still hasn’t gotten around to writing one, and the results are seen in the Brexit shambles.

  2. We sure don’t follow any of the rules!

    I have several Most Important worries about the future of our Republic, the most important of which is that so many people don’t seem to care that we have one, or think it’s something special and worthwhile, or that it requires wisdom, deep respect, stewardship, good will and effort to maintain, not to mention an optimistic view of our history. A lot of the time we seem to hate ourselves. We’re not very respectful. I have a very dim view of our collective wisdom, and as far as good will stewardship are concerned, those seem to be virtues we jettisoned in another age.

    I also think our time is very different from earlier periods in a way that was inconceivable even fifty years ago: pervasive surveillance and data collection. I understand the upsides of data (most of them, anyway), but we’re flirting with some very dangerous side effects and unintended consequences that could easily mean the end of liberty. We’re not careful, and we’re building organizations that are real monopolies with enormous coercive power over not just industries, but most importantly, individuals.

    Related: This is a fitting post this weekend because Monday isn’t just the Boston Marathon – it’s Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts, Maine and Wisconsin (the only three states to celebrate it). I was surprised because I remember it as the “third Monday in April” and didn’t realize it was already here. Then it was like: “Oh, yeah. Boston Marathon. Patriot’s Day.”

    You’ve noted before that Massachusetts is the most politically intolerant state in the Union. I wonder if people will consider that this Monday?

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