Paine, Dickinson and What Was Lost

I’m a divided person about American history, about how American society began and where it has gone.

This inner conflict is symbolized by my two favorite founding fathers: Thomas Paine and John Dickinson.They both embody the principled politics of the Quaker tradition along with the worldview of the Middle Colonies, especially Pennsylvania. However, they both had very different lives and found themselves on the opposite end of many issues.

The two represent different responses to their times. What does one do when demands for reform fail? What does one do when revolution is the only recourse for justice or else when revolution simply has become unavoidable? Despite their different paths, they shared a visionary understanding about the prospect of a “United States”. They both believed something greater was possible, in terms of representative government and political justice.

I’m reluctant to conclude they were wrong about their idealized America, not just yet.

Like Paine, I believe justice is worth fighting for, even to the extent of starting a revolution if need be. But like Dickinson, I think there is a very high bar of justification for any revolution.

My criticism of the American Revolution is that it was proven a failure by its own standards. Most Americans weren’t any more free after the revolution than before. In fact, many of those who remained loyal to Britain such as slaves gained way more freedom by fighting against the revolution. Only the upper classes in the colonies clearly gained benefit and advantage. Worse still, taxes on Americans were even higher and no more representative. Very few people were eligible to vote or hold office. The monarchy was replaced with a plutocracy. Meanwhile, the lower classes who fought the revolution found themselves in debt while holding worthless money paid to them by the government and because of this many lost their property to the same wealthy interests who had co-opted the new government.

One major justification for the American Revolution was the moral obligation to create a new kind of government, a unique political experiment toward freedom and liberty. That was what was attempted with the Articles of Confederation, but that idea was scrapped. The United States quickly devolved into just another nation-state and colonial empire. Many of the warnings of the Anti-Federalists turned out to be true which was becoming evident in the earliest years of the new government.

By the very close vote of 89 to 79, Virginia finally did ratify the Constitution. But Madison had not been deaf to the disquiet and mistrust expressed on the convention floor; he had grasped the delegates’ panic and their sense of loss at joining the Union. The next year he would respond to some of their concerns about individual liberties and federal powers by steering a bill of rights through Congress that amended the Constitution. The Tenth Amendment addressed, though in the mildest of terms, the anxiety of Virginians and other Americans about federal encroachments on the sovereignty of states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

But a few years later, Madison would make an about-face, distressed when he realized that Alexander Hamilton, spouting plans for a national bank and for vigorous industrial development, sought to turn the nation into precisely the kind of consolidated powerhouse that the antifederalists had feared. Madison even began to echo Patrick Henry as he wrote a series of articles in the National Gazette in 1792 warning against “a consolidation of the states into one government.”
~ Susan Dunn, Dominion of Memories (Kindle Locations 1688-1695)

The vision of America that inspired the entire revolution has existed in permanent limbo. We Americans aren’t sure we actually liked the revolution and what it stood for. We pay lip service to it, but the point of the whole thing still strikes us as radical to the extreme. We are no better off (in some ways worse) than the Canadians that remained loyal to the Crown and at some level I think all Americans realize this. We know there were lost opportunities when this country was founded and it isn’t just that the revolutionary ideals were betrayed back then but that every generation has betrayed them ever since. If we could do it, many Americans would turn those lost opportunities into entirely forgotten opportunities, erased from the national consciousness and obliterated from the history books. It stings our national pride that we are a country of failed idealism; worse still, other than a few malcontents it has been a willingly chosen (and often an oppressively enforced) failed idealism.

That is what our country was founded on, not idealism but failed idealism. This idealism didn’t fail with Obama or Bush, LBJ or Roosevelt, not even with Lincoln. No this idealism died in the crib. Some of the founding fathers even realized it and those that reached old age lamented the loss, although even they often couldn’t fully put their finger on what was lost. It wasn’t a manifest reality that was lost, but an ephemeral potential. For a brief moment, this nation dreamed large and envisioned moral greatness. And early Americans put their lives on the line for it, many of them having lost their lives for that opportunity to change the world.

I would clarify my message so as to not be dismissed by those who might perceive me as being dismissive.

It’s not that nothing worthwhile has been accomplished in this country. It’s just everything worthwhile that has been accomplished has been done so through endless fighting against the established social order. Most of the freedoms and rights we do have weren’t gained by fighting against the British government and political elite but by fighting against the American government and political elite. Centuries of fighting and relatively so little to show for it or at least not much more to show than any other major developed Western nation.

Maybe this should have been predictable from the first battle of the American Revolution that began with the War of Regulation when the lower classes fought for the right of self-governance against the local colonial political elite. Also, that conflict between the lower classes in debt to the capitalist class foreshadowed the rebellions that followed the official ending of the revolution. That 18th century class war then continued on into the 19th century with demands for democratic reforms, beginning with the Jacksonian Era and ending with the Populist Era. The entire history of this country has been a near endless class war.

We had a revolution. Maybe its time to finally complete the revolution, to finally live up to our own ideals. We can go on fighting the same old class war until our nation itself ends or we could work together toward building a democratic society that benefits all classes (all races, all ethnicities, all religions, all Americans).

I won’t claim to to know what was possible for the founding generation. Could the Articles of Confederation effectively been improved upon? Is there a reason a confederation of states with strong local self-governance has to fail? Must we cynically conclude that centralization of power and wealth is always inevitable? Was violent and destructive civil war the only way slavery could have ended here? These questions and many more.

No one knows for certain what are the answers to these questions. I’d simply point out that early on in our country Americans had the opportunity to find out answers to these questions. Something entirely new could have been attempted. This country could have been a moral exemplar for all the world. That would have been an interesting experiment, but maybe the experiment didn’t entirely fail. Every generation has the chance to try anew the experiment of democracy. I’m of the opinion that we should at least try something before discarding it.

Many countries have tried the experiments of large nation-states and expansionary empires, of plutocracy and other forms of oligarchy. We already know where that leads. Why not start again where the revolutionaries left off? If after putting it to the test everything the American revolutionaries fought for proves wrong, at least we would finally know that the failure was in the ideals rather than just in our lack of collective will. Then we could try another experiment.

In reading about the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution, I don’t feel so certain about where I fall on the Federal vs Anti-Federalist spectrum. Over time, I’ve slowly moved in the Anti-Federalist direction. I’m not Anti-Federalist on principle, but living during a time like this it is easier to see the failings of the Federalism that have since followed from that earlier era.

It is interesting that Dickinson fell more into the Federalist camp and Paine into the Anti-Federalist camp.

All in all, I side more with Dickinson in his resistance to revolution because he seems to have foreseen many of the problems that ensued. Dickinson, like Burke, wisely emphasized slow reform. Paine also was for reform, but once he got the idea of revolution in his head he ran with it like no other.

Once the revolution was begun and even moreso once independence was gained, I think Paine’s insights gained the upperhand on Dickinson’s pre-revolutionary wisdom. Paine probably had the best understanding about the promise of America. He also had the most uncompromising vision of morality and justice. Paine makes most of the founding fathers look pathetic in comparison. That is because Paine grasped that moment of history and went far beyond self-interest in fighting for what was right.

So, Dickinson was the better advocate of reform and Paine the better advocate of revolution. But I’ll give them both credit for having the ability to seek moderation among extremes. Dickinson was a true statesman when he sought balance with the Articles of Confederation, our country’s first constitution. As for Paine, his attempt at being a moderate in immoderate revolutionary France was beyond heroic.

A point I’ve made before is that America’s failure is twofold. Early Americans didn’t heed Dickinson’s warnings about revolution. Nor did the elite heed Paine’s call for justice. So, we didn’t get the best possible benefits of reform or revolution, but instead we became stuck somewhere in between. The losers on both ends outnumbered the winners.

As a side note, I’ve been struck by how much the long revolutionary era in America, from War of Regulation to Shay’s Rebellion, had to do with monetary issues.

Like the Bonus Army of WWI veterans protesting in demand of pay, the rebellions in the 1780s and 1790s were led by revolutionary war veterans. Like no other demographic, veterans embody the legitimacy of a government or lack thereof. They represent the genuine civic-minded citizen who is willing to put his life on the line in defense of his country. When a government treats its veterans unjustly, it says a lot more about the government than about the veterans protesting that injustice.

Debt was a major concern during the revolutionary era. The rural farmers of North Carolina experienced drought which caused them to fall into debt which the political and economic elites sought to take advantage of by seizing their property. This is what led to War of Regulation. The loss of value of money is what caused many revolutionary veterans to go into debt and also lose their land. This resulted later on in laws that made it illegal to take someone’s property, no matter how far in debt they fell (in the South, this was called homestead exemption).

Meanwhile, some of the planter elites were in debt as well which motivated many of them to support revolution. Many other elites ended up in debt following the revolution, some even ended up in debtor’s prison, a topic discussed by David Lefer in The Founding Conservatives. There was a whole lot of war profiteering and land speculation, some of it paid off which in case of war profiteering led to some trials but the land speculation led to a bubble that burst. Buyers became wise to all the land speculators trying to sell worthless or overpriced land.

After the revolution, the entire U.S. government was in debt. Many issues of politics revolved around this interlinking of public and private debt, especially the issue of Federalism vs Anti-Federalism. Who controlled government directly related to who controlled monetary policies and debt enforcement. No matter which policy was implemented, there would be both losers and winners. It wasn’t just about debt but also what debt means; also, how and when it is paid back and who is paid back with what. Money is about social value and hence what in society backs that money, but revolution turned the social order on its head.

Monetary policy was a mess at the beginning of the country. It eventually led to a massive crash. This was one of the issues favored the federalist position since it was the lack of a government-backed money supply that caused so much fraud and made trade difficult. Banks printed their own money and were supposed to back it themselves, but it didn’t always work out so well.

These issues were still being argued about all the way to the Populist and Progressive Eras. Class war was never just about abstract notions of class identity. It was about real world problems of markets and civil rights, the latter being obvious with examples like debt peonage. Monetary issues always goes hand in hand with revolution and populism because money is a symbol of power, how that power is shared or denied, how the social order is enforced or reformed.

This is what connects us now back to those during the Revolutionary Era. After the American Revolution, economic inequality had grown. And once again, we are at a time when economic inequality has grown. Large wealth disparities create unstable social orders. Stability was only maintained in early America because the poor had access to cheap land and so the government essentially used that to buy off the populists from making even greater demands of justice and equality, but now the government has fewer ways to buy off the lower classes that are growing discontented. The bread and circus of welfare and consumerism can only release so much of this building pressure.

Interestingly, this old economic debate between Federalism and Anti-Federalism isn’t just rooted in elitism vs populism but also rooted in capitalism vs agrarianism (all of which fed into the Civil War). It wasn’t accidental that the revolution was begun by and so many of the later rebellions were caused by farmers. And it wasn’t accidental that so few of the framers of the constitution were farmers. This is the form class war took at that time. The death of the family farm has transformed this particular aspect, but the social division is far deeper than particular types of work. Issues of civil rights and independence are just as important for working class people today as they were for farmers from centuries past.

It says a lot about our society right now that the Anti-Federalists are increasingly seen in a positive light. They were the underdogs of their time. Many people today want to root for them for we identify with them. With hindsight, it is easy to see the Anti-Federalists as speaking more to our modern democratic inclinations. Anti-Federalism held a strain of genuine democracy that was stamped out by elites and one has to wonder what might have happened if it had been allowed to take its natural course of development.

Anti-Federalists weren’t just a dissenting voice. They represented the very democratic value of dissent, of public discourse, of listening to all sides. The Federalists, instead, represented stifling dissent by oppressive law (Alien Sedition Acts) and corporate power (the majority of printing/publishing/newspaper businesses were owned by Federalists, the big biz MSM of their day). We now live in a time when voices of dissent are growing, not just a tolerance for dissent but the ability for dissenters to make themselves heard. The equivalent of Federalists today have even more massive media control in some ways, but they also have less ability to stifle dissenting voices that can spread uncontrolled across social media.

The last section below includes several passages I came across recently. In perusing various books I own, I was trying to grasp the meaning of the Articles of Confederation and Anti-Federalism. It is, of course, complex. But more importantly, it is a lot more interesting than the bullshit you were taught in school, than what you saw on the History Channel, and than you read in most mainstream history books. The following gives you a sense of some of the voices that were largely silenced and overlooked. Enjoy!

The more characteristic Federalist position was to deny that the choice lay between confederation and consolidation and to contend that in fact the Constitution provided a new form, partly national and partly federal. This was Publius’ argument in The Federalist, no. 39. It was Madison’s argument in the Virginia ratifying convention. And it was the usual argument of James Wilson himself, who emphasized the strictly limited powers of the general government and the essential part to be played in it by the states.30 The Anti-Federalists objected that all such arguments foundered on the impossibility of dual sovereignty. “It is a solecism in politics for two coordinate sovereignties to exist together….” A mixture may exist for a time, but it will inevitably tend in one direction or the other, subjecting the country in the meantime to “all the horrors of a divided sovereignty.”31 Luther Martin agreed with Madison that the new Constitution presented a novel mixture of federal and national elements; but he found it “just so much federal in appearance as to give its advocates in some measure, an opportunity of passing it as such upon the unsuspecting multitude, before they had time and opportunity to examine it, and yet so predominantly national as to put it in the power of its movers, whenever the machine shall be set agoing, to strike out every part that has the appearance of being federal, and to render it wholly and entirely a national government.”32

The first words of the preamble sufficiently declare the anti-federal (in the strict sense) character of the Constitution, Patrick Henry thought; and his objection thundered over the Virginia convention sitting in Richmond:

[W]hat right had they to say, We, the People? My political curiosity, exclusive of my anxious solicitude for the public welfare, leads me to ask, who authorised them to speak the language of, We, the People, instead of We, the State ? States are the characteristics, and the soul of a confederation. If the States be not the agents of this compact, it must be one great consolidated National Government of the people of all the States.33

The clearest minds among the Federalists agreed that states are the soul of a confederacy. That is what is wrong with confederacies: “The fundamental principle of the old Confederation is defective; we must totally eradicate and discard this principle before we can expect an efficient government.”*34

Here lies the main significance of the mode of ratification in the proposed Constitution. The new procedure—ratification by special state conventions rather than by Congress and the state legislatures and provision that the Constitution shall be established on ratification of nine states (as between them), rather than all thirteen states as required under the Articles of Confederation—was not merely illegal; it struck at the heart of the old Confederation. It denied, as Federalists like Hamilton openly admitted, the very basis of legality under the Articles of Confederation. The requirement in the Articles of Confederation for unanimous consent of the states to constitutional changes rested on the assumption that the states are the basic political entities, permanently associated indeed, but associated entirely at the will and in the interest of each of the several states.*35 Even if it were granted that government under the Articles had collapsed (which most Anti-Federalists did not grant), there was no justification for abandoning the principles of state equality and unanimous consent to fundamental constitutional change.

Storing, Herbert J. (2008-12-02). What the Anti-Federalists Were For: The Political Thought of the Opponents of the Constitution (Kindle Locations 269-299). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

One of the striking and, to many readers, surprising aspects of the debate over the Constitution is the conservative posture of the opposition. The Anti-Federalists did not deny the need for some change, but they were on the whole defenders of the status quo. They deplored departures of the Constitution from “the good old way” or “the antient and established usage of the commonwealth.” They shook their heads at “the phrenzy of innovation” sweeping the country: “The framing entirely new systems, is a work that requires vast attention; and it is much easier to guard an old one.” They warned that constant change would leave Americans “always young in government.”1 Some expressed the primitive conservative view that whatever is old is good. Others revealed profound (but seldom explored) misgivings about the modern political principles on which the Constitution was so wholeheartedly based.*2 Ordinarily, however, their conservatism was neither so shallow nor so deep. In the main, they saw in the Framers’ easy thrusting aside of old forms and principles threats to four cherished values: to law, to political stability, to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and to federalism.

The Anti-Federalists often objected even to entering into debate on the Constitution because of legal irregularities in the proceedings of the Philadelphia Convention. They argued that that Convention had been authorized “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation,” and had no right to propose any radical change in the government of the Union.3 While not invincible, this argument is very powerful; but it became less pertinent every day simply because the Constitution was in fact before the people and its merits under discussion. The threshold had been crossed, and the Anti-Federalists had little choice but to follow the Federalists over it. But there were other legal objections. The Convention proposed that Congress and the state legislatures should be bypassed in favor of special ratifying conventions and that the Constitution should come into effect when nine states ratified. For neither of these proposals was there any legal basis. They ran counter to Congress’s commission to the Convention, and they violated the mode of amendment established in the Articles of Confederation.

The proposals of the Framers were self-defeating in their casual disregard of the forms of legality: “the same reasons which you now urge for destroying our present federal government, may be urged for abolishing the system which you now propose to adopt; and as the method prescribed by the articles of confederation is now totally disregarded by you, as little regard may be shewn by you to the rules prescribed for the amendment of the new system. …” “Charters,” Rawlins Lowndes warned, “ought to be considered as sacred things….” The Anti-Federalists saw in the proceedings and proposals of the Philadelphia Convention a threat to that “publick faith and confidence,” which “bind[s] and cement[s] the community” and “establishes] them as a body politick.”4 Of course the Anti-Federalists agreed that the people have a right to alter their governments; but they insisted that any revolution (including the one most of them had proudly aided) must be secured by an initially fragile political stability. They criticized the Federalists, in typical conservative fashion, for threatening this precious stability. “The late revolution having effaced in a great measure all former habits, and the present institutions are so recent, that there exists not that great reluctance to innovation, so remarkable in old communities, and which accords with reason, for the most comprehensive mind cannot foresee the full operation of material changes on civil polity….” Hasty and blind adoption of government will lead to hasty and blind alterations, “and changes must ensue, one after another, till the peaceable and better part of the community will grow weary with changes, tumults and disorders, and be disposed to accept any government, however despotic, that shall promise stability and firmness.”5

Far from straying from the principles of the American Revolution, as some of the Federalists accused them of doing,6 the Anti-Federalists saw themselves as the true defenders of those principles. “I am fearful,” said Patrick Henry, “I have lived long enough to become an old fashioned fellow: Perhaps an invincible attachment to the dearest rights of man, may, in these refined enlightened days, be deemed old fashioned: If so, I am contented to be so: I say, the time has been, when every pore of my heart beat for American liberty, and which, I believe, had a counterpart in the breast of every true American.”7 The Anti-Federalists argued, as some historians have argued since, that the Articles of Confederation were the constitutional embodiment of the principles on which the Revolution was based:

Sir, I venerate the spirit with which every thing was done at the trying time in which the Confederation was formed. America had then a sufficiency of this virtue to resolve to resist perhaps the first nation in the universe, even unto bloodshed. What was her aim? Equal liberty and safety. What ideas had she of this equal liberty? Read them in her Articles of Confederation.8

The innovators were impatient to change this “most excellent constitution,” which was “sent like a blessing from heaven,” for a constitution “essentially differing from the principles of the revolution, and from freedom,” and thus destructive of the whole basis of the American community. “Instead of repairing the old and venerable fabrick, which sheltered the United States, from the dreadful and cruel storms of a tyrannical British ministry, they built a stately palace after their own fancies…” 9

The principal characteristic of that “venerable fabrick” was its federalism: the Articles of Confederation established a league of sovereign and independent states whose representatives met in congress to deal with a limited range of common concerns in a system that relied heavily on voluntary cooperation. Federalism means that the states are primary, that they are equal, and that they possess the main weight of political power. The defense of the federal character of the American union was the most prominent article of Anti-Federalist conservative doctrine. While some of the other concerns were intrinsically more fundamental, the question of federalism was central and thus merits fuller discussion here, as it did in that debate.

Storing, Herbert J. (2008-12-02). What the Anti-Federalists Were For: The Political Thought of the Opponents of the Constitution (Kindle Locations 138-192). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

In 1781, when the thirteen state legislatures had ratified the “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union,” they agreed never to alter them without unanimous consent. Six years later, during the winter of 1786– 87, every state but Rhode Island elected delegates to a federal convention, to be held in Philadelphia the following summer. The meeting had been called, as Congress observed, “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.” Delegates were to propose amendments that would take effect only after clearing Congress and every state legislature. 6 The members of the Philadelphia convention decided to ignore these instructions, proposing not to alter the Articles of Confederation but to abolish them. The regime they created would begin exercising sovereignty not when it was endorsed by Congress and all thirteen state assemblies, as the Articles required, but as soon as it received the approval of nine state ratifying conventions. Whatever else it was, the process that resulted in the U.S. Constitution was indisputably, according to the rules in place at the time, unconstitutional.

In defense of their unorthodox methods, the Framers of the Constitution boldly avowed that they had decided to ask their fellow citizens to assert the same prerogative they had insisted upon in 1776— their right of revolution. 7 The difference, of course, was that the Federalists, like the Shaysites, were rebelling against their own republic . Like the Massachusetts insurgents, some of the Framers claimed they simply had no choice. “The House on fire must be extinguished,” Pennsylvania attorney James Wilson declared, “without a scrupulous regard to ordinary rights.” 8

The members of the federal convention did not suddenly come up with the idea of junking the Articles of Confederation after they all arrived in Philadelphia. Many, in fact, had decided years earlier to try to establish a new national government. 9 In plotting to ignore the instructions they had received from the state assemblies, the delegates displayed an extreme version of the belief that the elected representative is not simply an instrument of his constituents’ will. He is instead an independent thinker who ought to execute justice as he himself defines it.

James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, and other delegates brought proposals for overthrowing the Articles of Confederation with them to Philadelphia . But they did not discuss their intentions publicly. If they had, assemblymen in their home states probably would not have chosen them. It is an unsettling but inescapable fact that several of the principal authors of the U.S. Constitution, which has served as a model for representative governments all over the world, would never have made it to Philadelphia if their constituents had known their real intentions. There is more. If the various proposals to create a new national government drafted in the spring of 1787 had been made public, several state legislatures might have joined Rhode Island in steering clear of the convention altogether. The Constitution that the delegates were writing would consolidate the thirteen previously sovereign states into a single nation, John Lansing of New York declared three weeks into the deliberations, and his state “would never have concurred in sending deputies to the convention, if she had supposed the deliberations were to turn on a consolidation of the States.” 10

It has frequently been noted that hardly any of the federal convention delegates tilled the soil for a living. Since nine in ten free Americans were farmers, the Framers were, demographically speaking, unrepresentative in the extreme. And yet for all that, the nation’s agricultural majority did exert a significant influence on the convention. In fact, farmers had begun to influence it even before it opened. As the delegates traveled to Philadelphia late in the spring, they were looking over their shoulders. Had they been confident that their constituents would meekly acquiesce in whatever plan they produced, the delegates who wished to overthrow the Articles of Confederation would not have felt the need to conceal their intentions.

Holton, Woody (2008-10-14). Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (Kindle Locations 3067-3099). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

What most troubled Roane was the Court’s assertion of the primacy of the federal government over the states and its expansive formulation of “implied powers.” Surely the word “necessary” (in the Constitution’s “necessary and proper” clause) restricted the meaning of that phrase, Roane argued.

Jefferson was elated to read Roane’s “Hampden” letters. Like Roane, he disputed the Supreme Court’s claim to serve as the final arbiter of constitutional questions, either within the federal government or between the federal government and the states. He, too, lambasted Marshall for spearheading a movement designed to transform the American government into one “as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated.” Jefferson even took strong issue with Marshall’s way of delivering court opinions as if they were unanimous, rarely recording minority opinions and thus virtually silencing any dissenting members of the Court. “An opinion is huddled up in conclave, perhaps by a majority of one,” Jefferson wrote, “delivered as if unanimous, with the silent acquiescence of lazy or timid associates, by a crafty chief judge, who sophisticates the law to his mind, by the turn of his own reasoning.”

The sweep of the McCulloch decision dismayed Madison, too. While the case had obviously called for a judicial decision, Madison wrote to Roane, it had not called for such a broad and expansive interpretation of the “necessary and proper” clause. Marshall’s opinion in that case, Madison added, had the ominous effect of bestowing on Congress a discretion “to which no practical limit can be assigned.” The Court’s decision had simply empowered the “ingenuity” of the legislative branch to exercise any and all powers-including unconstitutional ones. The danger was that such judicial rulings might lead to a complete transformation of the federal system, converting “a limited into an unlimited Government.”

Madison found himself even sympathizing with his old foes, the antifederalists. Many federalists, he ventured, would have joined forces with the antifederalists in rejecting the Constitution, had they suspected that the Court would impose such a “broad & pliant” construction of the Constitution.

Susan Dunn. Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison, and the Decline of Virginia (Kindle Locations 1771-1782). Kindle Edition.

That growing sense of backcountry identity provides an important background for the main political event of 1787, when another group of people in eastern Pennsylvania went to work on another sort of political blueprint, the federal Constitution. Given the upsurge of recent scholarship on agrarian unrest in the Revolutionary era, the relationship between farmers and the Framers now stands in sharper contrast. In Unruly Americans, a book that picks up where Forced Founders ended and expands its view to Constitution-making, Woody Holton reminds us that in a nation in which nine out of ten free Americans were farmers, there were no yeomen directly involved in the Constitution-making process; the Framers were “demographically speaking, unrepresentative in the extreme.”192 Still, Holton argues, even though formally excluded from the framing process, yeomen did gain an implicit sort of representation among the men who went to Philadelphia in 1787. Agrarian protests had been a consistent force of internal pressure on government, repeatedly pushing state officials for various forms of redress—religious toleration, or at least relief from paying taxes to support a religious establishment; paper money, or at least relief from paying taxes in scarce specie; and greater political representation, or at least relief from the power of entrenched elites. The rural uprising that swept Massachusetts in 1786–87—commonly, but erroneously, called Shays’s Rebellion—has become the most historically visible among these movements, and it still generates a good share of historians’ attention.193 As Holton notes, however, Massachusetts was not the only state to experience unrest in that period: neighboring New England states—New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island—also witnessed an upsurge of protest, as did other states down the eastern seaboard, from New Jersey to Virginia to South Carolina.194 Many elite political leaders looked on with frustration at the concessions rural folk wrung out of their state governments, and part of their purpose in calling for a new national framework of government was to correct the alleged excess of democracy they deplored. “From the Founders’ perspective,” Holton explains, “the policies adopted by the state legislatures in the 1780s proved that ordinary Americans were not entirely capable of ruling themselves.”195 And yet any attempt to assert greater control over the various state governments still had to take account of the popular protests that had made those states concede to their people. “As the delegates traveled to Philadelphia late in the spring,” Holton notes, “they were looking over their shoulders”—fearful, even forced, Framers, wary of unruly ordinary folk who still seemed less than fully reconciled to the results of the Revolutionary settlement. Even though the Framers enclosed themselves in secret session inside the Pennsylvania State House, “the temper of the times,” as Sean Wilentz usefully puts it, “seeped into the room.”196

That seepage proved to be significant. Historians who focus primarily on the men inside the room at the Constitutional Convention often portray the Framers as an enclosed, if often contentious, intellectual community who, for “all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views,” as Franklin so famously put it, still produced a “system approaching so near to perfection as it does.” But the debates among the delegates that Madison so carefully recorded were only one part of the convention’s controversies. The degree of disagreement among the Framers on the inside seems comparatively pale when compared to the passionate opinions of ordinary people on the outside, who increasingly claimed recognition for the role—and the rights—they had established during the Revolution. No matter how much the men who created the Constitution might have hoped to establish a government that relied on the guidance of a “natural aristocracy”—men such as themselves, for instance—they could not do as they pleased. To “secure domestic tranquility,” the architects of the Constitution realized, meant more than designing a central government that could suppress internal insurrection; it also meant, as Holton notes, disguising their antidemocratic intentions:

“If the federal convention delegates had not feared that the nation’s agrarian majority would reject it, they would have created a considerably more elitist document.”197

Even so, the document they did create did not receive a free pass from farmers. Richard Beeman, whose Plain, Honest Men provides a perceptive, inside-the-State-House analysis of the Framers’ debates, also turns his attention beyond Philadelphia to the nature of the subsequent ratification debate in rural regions. In Pennsylvania, he notes, the combination of urban professionals and artisans and tradesmen in Philadelphia along with “surprisingly strong showings in some of the western counties” gave the Federalists a decided edge, but some rural Antifederalists attacked the elitist-seeming Constitution with “a rhetoric of grassroots populism that was well suited to their backcountry constituencies.” In Virginia, voters in the Piedmont and backcountry likewise opposed the new Constitution, as did backcountry inhabitants of North Carolina, where a “hearty distrust of central authority was deeply entrenched, … dating at least to the so-called Regulator movements of the 1760s.” The more recent Regulation in Massachusetts also weighed on the delegates to that state’s ratifying convention, and residual sympathy for the insurgents’ grievances remained a factor in the debate, which “turned on issues of social and economic conflict.” Although Beeman does not directly engage Charles Beard’s economic analysis of the ratification vote—indeed, Beard’s name does not appear in the book—he does remind us that resistance to ratification became most prominent in the countryside and that such resistance often spoke “the language of populist democracy” to the power of the new political system.198

Rural resistance was not just a flash in the political pan. “Something strange happened in the Pennsylvania countryside in the years following the federal Constitutional Convention of 1787,” Bouton reports: “large numbers of farmers closed the main road that led in and out of their communities,” and he counts sixty-two such incidents for the next eight years, until 1795. Rural people apparently took such action, he explains, to defend themselves from the encroaching power inherent in two recently ratified constitutions, the federal Constitution of 1787 and the new Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790, a Federalist-sponsored effort to overturn the state’s dramatically democratic constitution of 1776. In both cases, farmers feared, the new political systems represented a threatening victory on the part of the financial and political elites, and they closed the roads to try to protect themselves from the external agents of the state, particularly tax collectors, magistrates, and justices. The road closings had a short-term practical effect, slowing the operations of court proceeding and sheriffs’ auctions for debt, but they also symbolized a more general retreat from the larger political arena into overly localized isolation. “In this hostile new environment, ordinary folk who wanted to uphold their vision of the Revolution urgently needed to find ways to work together,” Bouton observes. Instead, they barricaded roads, a politically feckless step that cut them off from each other and undercut common action.199

This pattern of localized yeoman resistance began to take a decidedly different turn in 1794, however, when rural people in Pennsylvania reached beyond their local communities and joined in a more widespread expression of protest that challenged both state and national officials. Like the so-called Shays’s Rebellion of the previous decade, the “Whiskey Rebellion” has received fresh scholarly attention, beginning with the implications of the liquid commodity in question. To be sure, whiskey had something to do with the rise of unrest, not just as a commodity of trade and eventual target of taxation but, as Patrick Griffin notes, a symbol of “the sense of alienation, anti-authoritarianism, and violence that permeated many of the poorer settlements.”200 Yet the too-easy use of the label “Whiskey Rebellion,” a dismissive term first coined by Alexander Hamilton, tends to limit our view to local events and reinforces Hamilton’s original ridicule, leaving a simplistic image of “drunken, gun-wielding hillbillies,” Bouton writes, “frightening but too comical to be taken seriously.” Taking the resistance quite seriously and, equally important, locating it in the larger political context of the longer Revolutionary era, Bouton and Griffin underscore the chronological and geographical connections to events elsewhere in time and place. Engaging in familiar forms of protest reaching back through the Revolutionary era, “the whiskey men drew upon the lessons learned during their own period of politicization,” Griffin explains. To underscore that longer period of political connection, Bouton argues for calling the regional unrest the “Pennsylvania Regulations,” adopting a term that links the actions of the western settlers in the 1790s to other recurring attempts of rural people to control or correct the actions of their government officials, from the Carolinas in the pre-Revolutionary years to Massachusetts and other parts of New England in the 1780s. “The 1790s uprisings in Pennsylvania,” Bouton argues, “fit seamlessly into this pattern of popular regulation.”201

Young, Alfred F.; Nobles, Gregory (2011-09-01). Whose American Revolution Was It?: Historians Interpret the Founding (Kindle Locations 3715-3788). NYU Press short. Kindle Edition.

Wherever they lived, Anglicans (now Episcopalians) and Quakers, the two major religious groups least committed to the Revolution, were lopsidedly in the camp of hard money and property, well-empowered government, readmission of former loyalists, ratification of the Constitution, and the politics of incipient Federalism. That at least suggested religion as a factor.”

Other wartime religious political alignments were also transformed. Presbyterians, especially on the Scotch-Irish frontier, generally opposed the cosmopolitan, pro-ratification, and Federalist side, which included their old commander-in-chief, George Washington. The principal exception came in New Jersey, where many of the Federalist-leaning Presbyterians were transplanted Yankees with Congregationalist antecedents. Congregationalists themselves, generally cohesive during the war, split during the 178os along caste and class lines. The poor, rural, and anti-Tory became anti-Federalists, while the coastal and commercial cosmopolitans of New England, over the next generation, became the single most important national support base of the Federalist Party.

This regrouping of elites around a partial counterrevolution stood 1775-1776 relationships on their heads. Even though one hundred thousand Tories and loyalists had left the United States, two or three hundred thousand would have remained, plus at least as many neutrals. Within a few years of independence, conservative factionalists in some states were openly recruiting them or, in the case of emigres, enlisting their return. In loyalist districts of southern Delaware and eastern Maryland, few had ever moved.

Kevin Phillips. The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America (Kindle Locations 3875-3883). Kindle Edition.

Critics of the Constitution quickly perceived the compromises of 1787. Somewhat more gradually, they developed ideas about what those compromises indicated about the rest of the framers’ design. As antislavery became a significant, if not ubiquitous, theme in the debate over the Constitution during the fall and winter, federalists were forced to respond. North of Virginia, they developed four main justifications, or excuses, for the place of slavery in the Constitution. They celebrated compromise. They admitted the presence of necessary evils. They projected blame onto the Deep South. And they exaggerated the Constitution’s antislavery implications.

During the ratification debates , more framers, like the authors of The Federalist, went public with their disavowals of slavery, in order to help get the Constitution passed by majority votes in key state conventions. Yet the state -by-state nature of ratification made it easier for the federalists to stress different, even contradictory, aspects of the Constitution to different constituencies. The responses on the local level, and the rebuttals offered by the framers and their allies, established a pattern for the volatile mix of slavery, constitutionalism, and American party politics in the nineteenth century.

Antislavery, in its antifederalist mode, ultimately lost in the struggle for ratification, as antislavery would lose repeatedly in mainstream politics for the next several generations thanks in part to the Constitution’s rules. Its localism, in the end, was its great strength and its fatal weakness in a struggle against a nationalist silencing of the slavery issue. Still, antifederalist criticisms of slavery’s Constitution— and especially arguments about how compromises over slavery reflected and papered over related political problems— were heard. Antislavery politics gained publicity, credibility, and further refinement. Some antifederalists even called the framers on their selective federalism: their willingness to allow slavery in particular to escape from the oversight of the nation-state. Thanks to the antifederalists’ doomed struggle against the Constitution, antislavery became part of an American tradition of dissent.

Waldstreicher, David (2010-06-15). Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (Kindle Locations 1441-1458). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

While Madison wanted large representative districts for Congress to ensure the election of responsible gentlemen like himself, Anti-Federalists preferred that legislators “resemble those they represent. They should be a true picture of the people.” Melancton Smith of New York, a prominent middling Anti-Federalist, did not object to representatives being persons of education and influence, but they “should also include ordinary people.” In Massachusetts the fate of the Regulators created “a widespread fear of the governing elite,” which fed Anti-Federalism: “Every critic, it seemed, envisioned the ‘little people’ being stomped on by ‘the well-born,’ ‘the gentlemen,’ and ‘the aristocracy.'”62

For a variety of reasons, most Anti-Federalists championed the virtues of localism in politics as well as economic affairs.63 Although not all Anti-Federalists were egalitarian democrats, they looked on “democracy” far more favorably than their opponents did. Federalists rarely referred to “democracy” approvingly. Some elite Anti-Federalists also shared with Federalists a more restricted view of public opinion and the public sphere and held reservations regarding the wisdom of ordinary folk. But Federalists, again, were more skeptical of the common man’s judgment. They assumed that gentlemen would debate issues among themselves and guide the decisions of those below them. Middling and plebeian Anti-Federalists (and even some elite Anti-Federalists), however, possessed a much broader conception of the public sphere.64

“Popular” Anti-Federalists advocated a more inclusive public sphere “filled with debate in newspapers, pamphlets, broadsides and speeches . . . [and] imagined a form of robust politics defined by a free press and free speech that would extend across the whole of America. They were, as a result, quick to challenge efforts to mobilize traditional legal rules of libel, sedition, and prior restraint.”65 They also called attention frequently to the Federalists’ ability to dominate public opinion through control of most newspapers. It has been estimated that Federalists controlled as many as seventy-five newspapers, while Anti-Federalists could rely on never more than twenty; moreover, the latter came under economic pressure from “the merchant-banker-lawyer community that was anxious for quick ratification,” while “cancelled advertisements and discontinued subscriptions took their toll.” Anti-Federalists complained also—not without cause—of the blocking of the circulation of Anti-Federalist newspapers along the seaboard by unfriendly postmasters. When news of New York’s ratification reached Manhattan in July 1788, a mob celebrated by marching to the Anti-Federalist New York Journal and smashing furniture and typecases.66

Formisano, Ronald P. (2008-02-25). For the People: American Populist Movements from the Revolution to the 1850s (Kindle Locations 815-836). University of North Carolina Press – A. Kindle Edition.

These various conceptual tensions are indicative of the difficulties of the founding generation’s unprecedented effort to theorize the place of dissent in democracy. This would be a decades-long process and one never completely embraced by mainstream American thinkers. But the Anti-Federalist movement was a critical turning point, because it reflected the first sustained effort to conceptualize and practice a democratic dissent. In the end, the ratification crisis and the “Great Debate” it engendered would broach but not resolve many of the significant issues raised by those seeking to give dissent pride of place in democratic theory. For starters, there was the very real question of whether dissent should be rejected as a kind of treason. And if it was to be allowed, should anonymous dissent be permitted despite the mask it provides to prejudice and self-interest? Or should it be encouraged, in order to neutralize the overawing “authority of names” like Washington? On a more practical level, the dynamics of dissent were yet to be seriously explored, especially the power of those who controlled the terms of debate or the various institutions of discourse (most important, the press and the post office). Ultimately, there was the more conceptual, epistemological question of the nature of truth: was the truth revealed by discourse or created by it? Or, as Another of the People claimed, was truth merely sullied by dissent?

Amid other fundamental issues raised in the ratification debates, early Americans wrestled with these questions, drawing on episodic colonial efforts to answer them. The proper role of popular disorder—even violence—was always in the background, but it largely stayed there. As even Centinel admitted, the regulation in western Massachusetts had colored the ratification debate. The riot in Carlisle had been preceded by a Federalist mob’s intimidation of Anti-Federalist convention delegates in Philadelphia, but, in fact, violence was rare.10 As we shall see, Philadelphiensis captured much of the most insightful Anti-Federalist thinking, and while he felt that an avid Federalist printer deserved to be hanged in effigy, he would not encourage it: “I am sensible of the danger of inflaming the multitude under a free government” since justice is rarely done.11

The evolution during the eighteenth century of a theory of democratic dissent occurred in parallel with the narrowing of the legitimacy of popular disorder. Just as the tradition of quasi-legitimate popular disorder had roots in Britain and early colonial America, so the emergence of popular nonviolent dissent had roots in limited opposition to monarchical power and its delegated colonial authorities. But this development was still a struggle: both Puritanism and republicanism stressed consensus and consent. For Puritans, their covenant with God was communal, requiring community-wide acquiescence and active, not just passive, obedience. Famously, meaningful opposition in early Puritan settlements led to chosen or forced exile for some (e.g., Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson).

Similarly, though republicanism allowed for limited (and often elite) self-government and some disagreement, ideally such dissent was only a prelude to a self-sacrificing consensus that held dissension, factionalism, and ultimately anarchy at bay. In 1760, for example, two gentlemen who disagreed with the prevailing view of a public hearing felt the need to publish complaisant apologies for their mild dissent, thereby demonstrating that all opposition was presumed illegitimate.12 In the aftermath of the tumult and popular participation of the War, Americans began to allow for some contestation, but they worried about how it might be expressed. As Richard Hofstader long ago explained, “They also valued social unity or harmony” and saw opposition groups as destructive. Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist 70 demonstrates this general ambivalence: “Differences of opinion” in a legislature can bring “circumspection” but when a “resolution … is once taken, the opposition must be at an end.”13

Martin, Robert W.T. (2013-07-01). Government by Dissent: Protest, Resistance, and Radical Democratic Thought In the Early American Republic (Kindle Locations 1224-1255). NYU Press. Kindle Edition.

2 thoughts on “Paine, Dickinson and What Was Lost

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