America Is Not Great For Most Americans

I just saw a comment that stated, “There is no making America great again. America is better than it’s ever been.”

I’ve seen that same idea repeated by many people. I used to notice it from conservatives. In fact, it was the core message of the GOP inspired by Cold War rhetoric. But now I hear it from supposedly liberal Democrats. It doesn’t matter from which side it comes from. It expresses an utter disconnection from the lived experience and social reality of most Americans.

Inequality is growing. Large personal debt is becoming common. The real unemployment rate is the worst it’s been in a long time. Wages have been stagnating or declining for most workers since the 1970s. There is loss of job security, loss of benefits and pensions, loss of good jobs for the less educated (and, yes, the vast majority of Americans still don’t have a college degree). Factories have been closing down, offshored, or downsized. There are many poor communities (rural and urban, black and white) where the majority of residents are unemployed and the majority of men caught up in the legal system.

As for Trump’s supporters, older whites with average education, the world has decidedly taken a bad turn. Middle aged whites and rural whites are experiencing worsening mortality rates, not seen since data was kept. The middle class in general has been shrinking with many having fallen down the economic ladder, a generation doing worse than their parents and grandparents.

America is better than it’s ever been, really? Wake the fuck up!

If you’re the type of person who keeps repeating this bullshit, know this. It is you, in your ignorance and disconnection, in your lack of understanding and compassion, who are helping to promote Trump’s cause. You are the reason his supporters are so outraged. You are part of the problem.

Why not, instead, be part of the solution?

Ides of March in America

“You know, people have totally forgotten the true spirit of the Ides of March. It’s not just about vilifying the great. You have to create a power vacuum when you dump them so that everybody gets sucked into the dirt.”
~ Nialle Sylvan, Owner of The Haunted Bookshop

This is why it’s so important to treat politics as preventative medicine.

If we had the long-term vision and moral courage to have fought hard for progressive reform in recent history, there never would have been Reagan voodoo economics, Clinton New Democrats, Bush security state, Obama more of the same, and now crazy Trump populism. If not for decades of lesser evil voting that shifted politics right and built the corporatist state, we wouldn’t be worrying about a possible power vacuum. If instead we Americans had voted for the greater good, there wouldn’t now be righteous outrage whipping up fears of greater evil.

There are different ways of thinking about the Ides of March.

It is the infamous day of Caesar’s assassination, by his friend and fellow ruling elite. In that light, it can be seen as our past choices and actions coming back to haunt us. We are betrayed by the very system we’ve become invested in. But this also represents a change of power and of the social order.

The Ides of March originally was the Roman new year celebration and a time of religious worship and festivals. It did represent the death of the old, but also the birth of the new or else rebirth and transformation. So, it is a time to contemplate the past and an opportunity to dedicate oneself to a different vision and course of action. It is a reminder that change can be a good thing and often much needed.

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

One century has ended and now here we are in this new century wondering what the future holds in these tumultuous times. Resisting change won’t stop it. Might as well embrace it and make the best of it.

Word of advice to the ruling elite: You might want to watch closely the rest of the ruling elite. While you’re worrying about the growing mob with pitchforks, there might be a dagger at your back. During times of change, those with the most to lose are often the first to go. Remember, the French Revolution that beheaded a king began with an uprising led by aristocrats.

As for the rest of us, onward and forward. It’s a new day.

A Vast Experiment

Early America was a different world. There was a lot more going on back then than typically makes it into history textbooks and popular historical accounts. It was a world or rather set of worlds that was in a constant state of turmoil and conflict. Wars, rebellions, riots, and other fights for power were regular events.

The diversity both within, between, and at the edge of the imperial territories was immense. This diversity was racial, ethnic, national, religious, and linguistic. The vast tracts of land, populated to varying degrees, were controlled by various empires and tribes. Several different countries had colonies in the Mid-Atlantic region of New York, New Jersey, etc—a key region fought over in the seeking to control the Eastern seaboard. Of course, there was the French and Spanish settlers all over the place—in Canada, the Ohio Valley, Florida, New Orleans, Southwest, and West Coast. Even the Russians had colonized or otherwise claimed large areas of North America, from Alaska down to Northern California.

Many Native Americans had adopted some of the culture from or developed particular kinds of relationships with these other Europeans (and they influenced European culture in return). William Penn was able to have peaceful relationships with the tribes in the region because he was building off of the trust the French traders had developed. But Penn deserves much credit, as he was a tolerant guy. Even though he was English, he welcomed people from all over into his colony, which led Germans to be the majority in Pennsylvania. Places like South Carolina also had a non-British majority, which in this case was black majority that lasted until after the Civil War.

African-Americans, it could be easily argued, had more freedom before the American Revolution than immediately after it, more freedom before the Civil War than with the ending of Reconstruction. It wasn’t a continuous increase of benefit and opportunity for all involved—far from it. Race and gender identities were more fluid prior to the Revolution. There was a surprising amount of tolerance or simply gray area. It took the American Revolution to more clearly begin the process of demarcation of social roles and the racial hierarchy, which then was further solidified a century later during Jim Crow. In particular, the American Revolution had the sad result of effectively shutting down the growing abolition movement, until it was forced back to mainstream concern with the events that led to the Civil War. It turns out that African-Americans who fought for the British were the greatest defenders of liberty, as they had the most at stake.

Plus, in early America, there was less government control. Individuals and communities were to varying degrees left to their own devices. This was particular true in distant rural areas and even more true at and beyond the frontier. The colonies and later the states weren’t isolated from the other societies on the continent (imperial, native, and creole). Mixing was fairly typical and being multilingual was a necessity for many.

A significant number of Native American tribes retained independence for most of American history. Large scale federal oppression and genocide of natives didn’t begin until the major Indian Wars following the Civil War. The last free Native Americans weren’t fully suppressed, either killed or forced onto reservations, until the first half of the twentieth century. In the century or two before that, there was no certainty that the European immigrants and their descendants would rule most of the continent. If a few key battles had been won by the other side, history would have gone in entirely different directions. Native Americans and other independent societies didn’t give up freedom without a fight. It is easy to imagine Native Americans having combined forces to develop their own nation, and in fact that is precisely what some visionary leaders tried to do.

Even for white women and men, there was in many ways more freedom in early America. There was often a live-and-let-live attitude, as people were maybe more focused on basic issues of daily living and survival. Local issues and personal relationships were often more determinant on how people were treated, not large-scale societal norms and laws. There was also a growing movement, during the late colonial era, for rights of women, the poor, and the landless. This included a push toward universal suffrage or at least closer toward it. During the American Revolution, women in some places had won the right to vote, only to have it be taken away again after the oppressive patriarchs regained control.

Early America included immense diversity: racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic, political, etc. This is on top of the diversity of gender, marriage, and family life. This was at a time when social norms hadn’t fully been set. Such things as the independent nuclear family was first established among Quakers. Also, premarital sex was typical, many marriages following after pregnancy, but some people simply lived in sin. Single parents and ‘bastards’ were common.

Enforcement of social order was relatively minimal and mostly remained a responsibility of neighbors and communities. There were no prisons and police forces until after the American Revolution. Also, the promotion of family values as part of religious morality and patriotic duty didn’t fully take root until this later era, when the ideal of making good citizens became more central. Prior to that, the focus was on communities and they often were loose associations. Many people lived far apart. Churches and established congregations were fairly rare. Most Americans didn’t attend church regularly and one’s religion was largely a personal and private issue, except in certain urban areas where people were highly concentrated, especially where the local ruling elite demanded and had the power to enforce religious conformity.

It’s not that there weren’t punishments for transgressions. But it just wasn’t systematic and fully institutionalized. People tended to take care of their own problems and so it depended on how a local population perceived behavior, dependent on personal and communal experience. People living near each other were often times close relations, such as kin and long time friends, and they were highly dependent on one another. These people were more forgiving and tolerant in certain ways, even as vigilante justice could lead them to be cruel at other times, especially toward perceived outsiders.

A more general point is that early America was a time of nearly constant change. The world often dramatically shifted from one generation to the next. Social order and social norms were in constant flux. Along with the autonomy of relatively isolated lives, this led to a certain kind of freedom in how people lived and organized their communities. This is what attracted so many religious and political dissenters and hence much radical politics leading to regular challenges to power and the status quo, including riots and rebellions, along with peaceful protests and petitions.

It was a highly unstable society, even ignoring the constant fighting with Native Americans and other imperial subjects. England, in trying to maintain its own stability, ended up initially sending most of its convicts to the American colonies. Around a fifth of all British immigrants during the 18th century were convicts. This included political prisoners, but also common criminals and simply the desperately poor.

For the first centuries of American society, there were regular waves of poor immigrants, political dissidents, religious dissenters, indentured servants, and slaves. These were the defeated people of the world and the dregs of society. That is the broad foundation that America was built upon. These people were survivors in a brutal world. In response, some became brutal in kind, but for others they saw opportunity and hope. Either way, they were forced to make the best of their situation.

It was a fertile time of new ideas and ideals. Diverse people were thrown together. They experienced ways of life and ways of thinking that they otherwise would have never known about. Without fully established authority and entrenched government, they had to figure things out on their own. It was a vast experiment, quite messy and not always ending well, but at other times leading to fascinating and unpredictable results.

Early America held great potential. The world we live in wasn’t inevitable. Forces collided and in the struggle a new social order began to take shape, but the contesting of power has been endless and ongoing. The consequences of that prior era still haven’t fully settled out, for good and ill.

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For your edification and reading pleasure:

England on Edge: Crisis and Revolution 1640-1642
by David Cressy

The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, 1640-1661
by Carla Gardina Pestana

Fire under the Ashes: An Atlantic History of the English Revolution
by John Donoghue

The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution
by Christopher Hill

The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitans in an Age of Expansion, 1560-1660
by Alison Games

Migration and the Origins of the English Atlantic World 
by Alison Games

Diversity and Unity in Early North America
by Phillip Morgan

American Colonies: The Settling of North America, Vol. 1
by Alan Taylor

The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution
by Alan Taylor

The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America
by James Axtell

Natives and Newcomers: The Cultural Origins of North America
by James Axtell

Strangers Within the Realm: Cultural Margins of the First British Empire
by Bernard Bailyn (Editor) and Philip D. Morgan (Editor)

The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction
by Bernard Bailyn

The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America–The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675
by Bernard Bailyn

Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution
by Bernard Bailyn

Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America
by David Hackett Fischer

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America
by Colin Woodard

The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America
by Kevin Phillips

Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans
by Malcolm Gaskill

Becoming America: The Revolution before 1776
by Jon Butler

Crossroads of Empire
by Ned C. Landsman

At the Crossroads: Indians and Empires on a Mid-Atlantic Frontier, 1700-1763
by Jane T. Merritt

The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815
by Richard White

Cultures in Conflict: The Seven Years’ War in North America
by Warren R. Hofstra (Editor)

Frontier Cities: Encounters at the Crossroads of Empire
by Jay Gitlin (Editor), Barbara Berglund (Editor), and Adam Arenson (Editor)

The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent
by Kathleen DuVal

At the Edge of Empire: The Backcountry in British North America
by Eric Hinderaker and Peter C. Mancall

Breaking The Backcountry: The Seven Years’ War In Virginia And Pennsylvania 1754-1765
by Matthew C. Ward

Into the American Woods: Negotiations on the Pennsylvania Frontier
by James H. Merrell

William Penn and the Quaker Legacy
by John Moretta

Wild Yankees: The Struggle for Independence along Pennsylvania’s Revolutionary Frontier
by Paul B. Moyer

Irish Immigrants in the Land of Canaan: Letters and Memoirs from Colonial and Revolutionary America, 1675-1815
by Kerby A. Miller (Editor), Arnold Schrier (Editor), Bruce D. Boling (Editor), and David N. Doyle (Editor)

The People with No Name: Ireland’s Ulster Scots, America’s Scots Irish, and the Creation of a British Atlantic World, 1689-1764
by Patrick Griffin

The Planting of New Virginia: Settlement and Landscape in the Shenandoah Valley
by Warren R. Hofstra

The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia
by Michael A. McDonnell

The Virginia Germans
by Klaus Wust

The Story of the Palatines: An Episode in Colonial History
by Sanford H. Cobb

The Germans In Colonial Times
by Lucy Forney Bittinger

Early Eighteenth Century Palatine Emigration: A British Government Redemptioner Project to Manufacture Naval Stores
by Walter Allen Knittle

German Immigration to America: The First Wave
by Don Heinrich Tolzmann

Foreigners in Their Own Land: Pennsylvania Germans in the Early Republic
by Steven M. Nolt

Palatines, Liberty, and Property: German Lutherans in Colonial British America
by A. G. Roeber

Hopeful Journeys: German Immigration, Settlement, and Political Culture in Colonial America, 1717-1775
by Aaron Spencer Fogleman

New Netherland Connections: Intimate Networks and Atlantic Ties in Seventeenth-Century America
by Susanah Shaw Romney

The Worlds of the Seventeenth-Century Hudson Valley
by Jaap Jacobs (Editor) and L. H. Roper (Editor)

The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-Century America
by Jaap Jacobs

The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America
by Russell Shorto

Dutch New York: The Roots of Hudson Valley Culture
by Roger Panetta (Editor) and Russell Shorto (Foreword)

Beverwijck: A Dutch Village on the American Frontier, 1652-1664
by Janny Venema

Mohawk Frontier: The Dutch Community of Schenectady, New York, 1661-1710
by Jr. Burke Thomas E.

Death of a Notary: Conquest and Change in Colonial New York
by Donna Merwick

Generous Enemies: Patriots and Loyalists in Revolutionary New York
by Judith L. Van Buskirk

A People in Revolution: The American Revolution and Political Society in New York, 1760-1790
by Edward Countryman

Unnatural Rebellion: Loyalists in New York City during the Revolution
by Ruma Chopra

The Other New York: The American Revolution Beyond New York City, 1763-1787
by Joseph S. Tiedeman (Editor) and Eugene R. Fingerhut (Editor)

Reluctant Revolutionaries: New York City and the Road to Independence, 1763-1776
by Joseph S. Tiedemann

The Other Loyalists: Ordinary People, Royalism, and the Revolution in the Middle Colonies, 1763-1787
by Joseph S. Tiedemann

Tories: Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War
by Thomas B. Allen

Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution
by Kathleen DuVal

Atlantic Virginia: Intercolonial Relations in the Seventeenth Century
by April Lee Hatfield

Tales from a Revolution: Bacon’s Rebellion and the Transformation of Early America
by James D. Rice

The Governor and the Rebel: A History of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia
by Wilcomb E. Washburn

Breaking Loose Together: The Regulator Rebellion in Pre-Revolutionary North Carolina
by Marjoleine Kars

Farming Dissenters: The Regulator Movement in Piedmont North Carolina
by Carole Watterson Troxler

A Very Mutinous People: The Struggle for North Carolina, 1660-1713
by Noeleen McIlvenna

The Waterman’s Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina
by David S. Cecelski

These Daring Disturbers of the Public Peace: The Struggle for Property and Power in Early New Jersey
by Brendan McConville

Hubs of Empire: The Southeastern Lowcountry and British Caribbean
by Matthew Mulcahy

On the Rim of the Caribbean: Colonial Georgia and the British Atlantic World
by Paul M. Pressly

The Short Life of Free Georgia: Class and Slavery in the Colonial South
by Noeleen McIlvenna

The Varieties of Political Experience in Eighteenth-Century America
by Richard R. Beeman

The Glorious Revolution in America
by David S. Lovejoy

1676: The End of American Independence
by Stephen Webb

Lord Churchill’s Coup: The Anglo-American Empire and the Glorious Revolution Reconsidered
by Stephen S. Webb

Marlborough’s America
by Stephen Saunders Webb

The Empire Reformed: English America in the Age of the Glorious Revolution
by Owen Stanwood

Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution
by Thomas P. Slaughter

When the United States Spoke French: Five Refugees Who Shaped a Nation
by Francois Furstenberg

The Radicalism of the American Revolution
by Gordon S. Wood

Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation
by Alfred F. Young (Editor), Ray Raphael (Editor), and Gary Nash (Editor)

Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution
by Alfred F. Young

Beyond the American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism
by Alfred F. Young

A People’s History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence
by Ray Raphael

The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord
by Ray Raphael

The Spirit of 74: How the American Revolution Began
by Ray Raphael and Marie Raphael

Taming Democracy: “The People,” the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution
by Terry Bouton

American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People
by T. H. Breen

From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776
by Pauline Maier

The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams
by Pauline Maier

Tom Paine’s America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism in the Early Republic
by Seth Cotlar

Revolutions without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World
by Janet Polasky

Desperate Sons: Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, and the Secret Bands of Radicals Who Led the Colonies to War
by Les Standiford

The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America
by Gary B. Nash

Between Sovereignty and Anarchy: The Politics of Violence in the American Revolutionary Era
by Patrick Griffin (Editor), Robert G. Ingram (Editor), Peter S. Onuf (Editor), Brian Schoen (Editor)

The Urban Crucible: The Northern Seaports and the Origins of the American Revolution
by Gary B. Nash

Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution
by Benjamin L. Carp

Arms, Country, and Class: The Philadelphia Militia and the Lower Sort during the American Revolution
by Steven J. Rosswurm

Governed by a Spirit of Opposition: The Origins of American Political Practice in Colonial Philadelphia
by Jessica Choppin Roney

The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding
by Eric Nelson

The Freedoms We Lost: Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America
by Barbara Clark Smith

The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America
by Chris Beneke (Editor) andChristopher S. Grenda (Editor)

The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past
by Margaret Bendroth

Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism
by Chris Beneke

Liberty of Conscience and the Growth of Religious Diversity in Early America, 1636-1786
by Carla Gardina Pestana

On the Backroad to Heaven: Old Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren
by Donald B. Kraybill and Carl F. Bowman

Jesus Is Female: Moravians and Radical Religion in Early America
by Aaron Spencer Fogleman

Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America
by Katherine Carté Engel

Community of the Cross: Moravian Piety in Colonial Bethlehem
by Craig D. Atwood

Two Troubled Souls: An Eighteenth-Century Couple’s Spiritual Journey in the Atlantic World
by Aaron Spencer Fogleman

The Methodists and Revolutionary America, 1760-1800
by Dee E. Andrews

Founding Sins: How a Group of Antislavery Radicals Fought to Put Christ into the Constitution
by Joseph S. Moore

Loyal Protestants and Dangerous Papists: Maryland and the Politics of Religion in the English Atlantic, 1630-1690
by Antoinette Sutto

Puritans and Catholics in the Trans-Atlantic World 1600-1800
by Crawford Gribben (Editor) and R. Spurlock (Editor)

Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic
by Matthew Stewart

The Public Universal Friend: Jemima Wilkinson and Religious Enthusiasm in Revolutionary America
by Paul B. Moyer

Pioneer Prophetess: Jemima Wilkinson, the Publick Universal Friend
by Herbert A. Wisbey Jr.

The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy
by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark

Gender and the English Revolution
by Ann Hughes

The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty
by Jean Zimmerman

The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World
by Emily Clark

Masterless Mistresses: The New Orleans Ursulines and the Development of a New World Society, 1727-1834
by Emily Clark

Not All Wives: Women of Colonial Philadelphia
by Karin Wulf

Disorderly Women: Sexual Politics and Evangelicalism in Revolutionary New England
by Susan Juster

Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750
by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

First Generations: Women in Colonial America
by Carol Berkin

Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence
by Carol Berkin

Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation
by Cokie Roberts

Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation
by Cokie Roberts

Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America
by Linda K. Kerber

Separated by Their Sex: Women in Public and Private in the Colonial Atlantic World
by Mary Beth Norton

Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800
by Mary Beth Norton

Founding Mothers & Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society
by Mary Beth Norton

Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820
by Susan E. Klepp

Women & Freedom in Early America
by Larry Eldridge

These Fiery Frenchified Dames: Women and Political Culture in Early National Philadelphia
by Susan Branson

Dangerous to Know: Women, Crime, and Notoriety in the Early Republic
by Susan Branson

Sex among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830
by Clare A. Lyons

Sexual Revolution in Early America
by Richard Godbeer

Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America
by Rachel Hope Cleves

Suspect Relations: Sex, Race, and Resistance in Colonial North Carolina
by Kirsten Fischer

Rape and Sexual Power in Early America
by Sharon Block

The Devil’s Lane: Sex and Race in the Early South
by Catherine Clinton (Editor) and Michele Gillespie (Editor)

Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household
by Thavolia Glymph

The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South
by Catherine Clinton

Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South
by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South
by Martha Hodes

The Road to Black Ned’s Forge: A Story of Race, Sex, and Trade on the Colonial American Frontier
by Turk McCleskey

Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America
by Peter H. Wood

Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion
by Peter H. Wood

Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680-1800
by Allan Kulikoff

Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry
by Philip D. Morgan

Deep Roots: Rice Farmers in West Africa and the African Diaspora
by Edda L. Fields-Black

Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas
by Judith A. Carney

Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina
by Daniel C. Littlefield

For Adam’s Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England
by Allegra di Bonaventura

Almost Free: A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia
by Eva Sheppard Wolf

Against the Odds: Free Blacks in the Slave Societies of the Americas
by Jane G. Landers

The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves
by Andrew Levy

Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion on a Virginia Plantation
by Rhys Isaac

Ploughshares into Swords: Race, Rebellion, and Identity in Gabriel’s Virginia, 1730-1810
by James Sidbury

Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802
by Douglas R. Egerton

“Myne Owne Ground”: Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640-1676
by T. H. Breen and Stephen Innes

Black Society in Spanish Florida
by Jane Landers

Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization Louisiana
by Arnold R. Hirsch (Editor) and Joseph Logsdon (Editor)

Romanticism, Revolution, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana, 1718-1868
by Caryn Cosse Bell

New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan
by Jill Lepore

The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution
by Gary B. Nash

Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence
by Alan Gilbert

Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America
by Douglas R. Egerton

Negro Comrades of the Crown: African Americans and the British Empire Fight the U.S. Before Emancipation
by Gerald Horne

The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America
by Gerald Horne

Confronting Black Jacobins: The U.S., the Haitian Revolution, and the Origins of the Dominican Republic
by Gerald Horne

Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions
by Jane G. Landers

The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution
by Sidney Kaplan

Race and Revolution
by Gary B. Nash

Eighteenth-Century Criminal Transportation
by Gwenda Morgan (Editor) and Peter Rushton (editor)

Emigrants in Chains. a Social History of the Forced Emigration to the Americas of Felons, Destitute Children, Political and Religious Non-Conformists
by Peter Wilson Coldham

Bound with an Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America
by Anthony Vaver

Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718-1775
by A. Roger Ekirch

White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America
by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh

To Serve Well and Faithfully : Labor and Indentured Servants in Pennsylvania, 1682-1800
by Sharon V. Salinger

By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority
by Holly Brewer

Children Bound to Labor: The Pauper Apprentice System in Early America
by Ruth Wallis Herndon (Editor) and John E. Murray (Editor)

Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution
by David Waldstreicher

Unwelcome Americans: Living on the Margin in Early New England
by Ruth Wallis Herndon

Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America
by Jen Manion

Rum Punch & Revolution: Taverngoing & Public Life in Eighteenth Century Philadelphia
by Peter Thompson

In Public Houses: Drink and the Revolution of Authority in Colonial Massachusetts
by David W. Conroy

On Teaching Well

I noticed that one of my older posts was linked to at another blog, U.S. History Ideas for Teachers. The author is Lauren Schreiber Brown and her piece was both detailed and thoughtful. The link in question is the second in this paragraph (from The 7 Things All Good Lessons Have in Common):

And realistically, that’s what a lot of us do. We know what we did last year, and yesterday, and so what comes next is comparing the North and South. But we should–every year–ask ourselves why do students need to know about the similarities and differences between the North and South? What is the point? How does this understanding help us better comprehend both the onset of the Civil War as well as its outcome? Do any of these differences still exist? In what way(s) does studying this topic improve the quality of our students’ lives?

I wanted to respond. But my response was too long for the character count at that blog. Plus, even the shorter comment I left there was never approved or else disappeared into the internet purgatory. So, I’ll make it a post, as I think it’s a worthy topic.

* * * *

I’m not a teacher, but I found this post interesting. I like how much thought you are putting into this. Education is important and teaching is a tough job. I’m glad to know teachers like you are out there are considering these kinds of issues and questions.

I noticed you linked to my blog, the post comparing the North and South. I spent my own grade school education initially in the Midwest and later in the Deep South. I never liked history, I must admit. I can’t say I had bad teachers, but they never quite found a way to make history seem to matter in my experience. In particular, I didn’t learn anything about the differences between the North and South.

I don’t even remember what I was taught in any history class. None of it ever stuck. I didn’t even know I enjoyed learning about history until I was well into adulthood. In recent years, I’ve taken history more seriously and have become fascinated about it, and not just about American history either.

I’m constantly coming across new data. It amazes me all the things I didn’t learn in school. History, if taught well, should be one of the most engaging topics for students. Yet so many people similar to me were bored silly by history classes. Why is that?

Early America was an interesting place. But before I started studying on my own, I didn’t realize that was the case. Most Americans, for example, are unaware that several colonies had non-British majorities. I was reminded again of this diversity recently:

“…from every part of Europe.”

At that post, I share a passage from The World in 1776 by Marshall B. Davidson. The part that most stood out to me is where he points out that, “One-third of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were of non-English stock, eight being first-generation immigrants.” I never knew that.

That multicultural reality was a central point that Thomas Paine made in arguing for independence. He wrote that, “Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America.”

I realize that is just info. But a good teacher should be able to make it relevant by connecting the diversity of the past to the diversity of the present. It’s not as if America only became an immigrant country in the 20th century. We are living in a continuity of what came before. An effective teacher would bring history alive and get students excited through the teacher’s own engagement with the subject matter.

I know one thing that helped for me was doing genealogical research. That made it personally real. But that goes off into a different kind of learning experience.

Contrast that to how I was taught history when I was younger. I remember in one class that I took 20 pages of notes for a single test. The teacher wasn’t horrible and he did try to get us to think about what we were learning, but I remember just feeling swamped by endless factoids. I wasn’t able to assimilate the info and no one taught me how to do so. That is the biggest failure of school in my experience, the lack of teaching students how to learn which goes hand in hand with teaching the love of learning.

I was a fairly smart kid. I had a learning disability and that made it difficult, but I was able to learn when I felt engaged enough. Still, the way I was so often taught made me hate school. It felt like a pointless struggle. In a sink or swim education system, I usually found myself sinking.

I had to learn how to learn mostly on my own and mostly as an adult. And I doubt I’m alone in that experience. That is a problem for the education system, and it isn’t a problem that can easily be dealt with by individual teachers. I imagine teachers are too busy just trying to teach to the test that anything more involved than the basics is asking for the near impossible.

It makes me sad that teachers get blamed. Teachers don’t have the time and resources to be effective. To focus on one thing means to sacrifice everything else. I couldn’t imagine the amount of planning it takes to try to make it all work.

Your emphasis on a conclusion probably is important. More than trying to shove info into students’ heads, a teacher should help them to understand the significance, ideally both in terms of personal relevance and real world application. A conclusion should drive home some central point or issue. What is learned needs to be connected and framed for otherwise it will quickly be forgotten.

* * * *

I should point out that some of my favorite classes were also my most demanding.

I had an awesome art teacher. He was a professional artist and taught me some serious skills. But his teaching went way beyond that. He is the only teacher I ever had who taught me how to think on my own.

Of course, art is far different from history. Maybe more similar to history is a topic like English, which was one of my other favorite classes. I had an English teacher who was English and he focused on the classics. He didn’t shy away from teaching difficult works. I suppose it was in 11th grade when I took his class and one book we read was Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, a daunting piece of writing even for an adult. He simply taught me the love of engagement with a text, as it was clear how much he enjoyed what he taught.

It’s hard to know what is the difference that makes a difference. I’m sure there were students who were bored and disengaged even in those classes that I loved so much. Not everything is going to work well for all students. That is the greatest challenge, especially the more students there are in a single class. It’s easy for students to get lost in a teacher’s focus on the entire class.

In the end, I think the most important thing a teacher does is to model a particular attitude and sets of behaviors. Students won’t likely care about what a teacher doesn’t care about. On the other hand, a love of learning can be contagious, even for a subject matter a student normally dislikes. I ultimately think there is no such thing as boring material, even if some subjects are harder to teach than others.

* * * *

By the way, I thought I’d share with you some cool facts. Combined, they are an example of how cool facts can help make larger points and show greater connections.

William Penn died in 1718. That was the year Benjamin Franklin was indentured as a printer’s apprentice. Some years later as an older teenager, Franklin made his way to Philadelphia where he began to do his own printing. Pennsylvania was one of those colonies that had a non-British majority, as Penn had traveled in Germany and intentionally invited Germans among others to settle in his colony (it’s interesting to note that more Americans today have German ancestry than any other, especially in the Northern states). Franklin complained about all the Germans for fear they wouldn’t assimilate (sounds familiar?). But as a businessman he was quick to take advantage by printing the first German language newspaper there.

When Franklin was in London, he met Thomas Paine, both having in common their being autodidacts. It was also in London where Paine first saw major political and labor union organizing, along with regular food riots. I might note that it was in London that the Palatine Germans (in the early 1700s) first immigrated before many headed to the American colonies, although these aren’t the same Germans that mostly populated Pennsylvania. This particular influx of Germans did happen in Franklin’s childhood and so it was a major social issue at the time. Anyway, by way of Franklin, Paine made his way to the American colonies and he ended up in Philadelphia, which is the location of Germantown where among the Germans the abolition movement began, and also where Paine helped found the first American abolition society. It was in Philadelphia that Paine first experienced the diversity of the American colonies and so was inspired to see them as something more than a mere extension of England.

It is interesting that the British used so many Hessian soldiers. This was related to Great Britain having alliances with German states. King George III being the Elector of Hanover (ethnically German and the first in his line to speak English as his first language). In the American Revolution, there were Germans fighting on both sides. Many of the descendants of those Germans would also fight each other in the world wars, although then with Americans and the Britains as allies.

Thomas Paine died in 1809. That was the year Abraham Lincolon was born. Lincoln, of course, was famous for ending slavery (after Lincoln’s winning the presidency with the support of German-Americans, the Civil War was partly won because of the mass immigrations to the North, including the often idealistic and socially liberal German Forty-Eighters, refugees of a failed revolution). Less well known is that Lincoln was influenced by Paine’s writings and, like Paine, wrote a deist tract (the only copy of which was burned up by a friend who thought it threatened LIncoln’s political career).

About a half century later, Theodore Roosevelt would call Paine “that dirty little atheist.” That is interesting when one considers that Roosevelt, like Lincoln before him, helped to promote Paine’s progressive vision of America. Teddy’s cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, would push that progressivism to yet another level. Although in a different party from Lincoln, FDR also was heavily inspired by Paine. As a side note, the Roosevelt family’s ancestry goes back to the Dutch settlers of the Dutch colony that would become New York, yet another part of early American diversity, and also the place where young Franklin first ran away to and where Paine would spend his last years.

Let me shift back to Lincoln’s lifetime. Karl Marx, who was born in Germany and saw firsthand the social unrest that led to the revolutions of 1848, was forced to flee to England. From there, he later wrote a letter to Lincoln to show his support for the Union’s cause in fighting slave power. Marx probably felt an affinity because Lincoln, early on as president, openly argued that “Labor is the superior of capital.” Charles Dana was a socialist Republican who, before becoming Lincoln’s Undersecretary of War, was the managing editor of the New York Tribune where he published Marx’s writings. Lincoln regularly read that newspaper and Dana had introduced him Marx’s ideas on a labour theory of value.

Marx’s ideas would then be a major inspiration for the ideological conflict that erupted into the Cold War. There was always an ethnic element to this as well, whether the enemy was Germans or Russians, but Germans unlike Russians were always seen as a greater threat since that ancestry was so large in America. German-Americans were always mistrusted, from the colonial era to the world wars. Early twentieth century saw the cultural genocide and forced assimilation of German-Americans, which saw many being sent to internment camps. Until that time, German-Americans had continually maintained their own culture with newspapers written and even public schools taught in the German language. German-American culture was wiped from the collective memory and this heritage was lost for so many.

All of that then leads up to where we are now. The world wars sent even more Germans to the US. Waves of German immigrants have regularly occurred throughout American history. That is why there are today so many Americans of German ancestry, including many students who are not being taught this history about their own ancestors. Sadly, most Americans have forgotten or else never learned about both the early diversity of America and the early radicalism of the likes of Paine.

There ya go. From colonial era to revolution to civil war to the present. That is how one makes history interesting and it was accomplished in only about a page of text. But why this can never be taught is because it is neither politically correct nor ideologically neutral, even though it is all entirely true.

* * * *

I had some thoughts about the example of cool facts that I offered.

There are several reasons why it demonstrates effective communication of history. Besides offering cool facts, multiple connections are offered, a larger framing is made to give context, the development of issues and ideas is shown over time, and a conclusion is offered that explains the relevance. All of that is accomplished in a few paragraphs.

My brain works that way. I make connections and I look for the big picture. That is part of my “learning disability.” What doesn’t work for me is factoid rote learning. Then again, that is true for most people, even if more extremely true for my weirdly operating brain.

So, why don’t teachers teach this way? Because the education system isn’t set for it.

In those paragraphs, I covered material involving multiple countries, multiple centuries, multiple individuals, multiple conflicts, and multiple issues. That doesn’t conform to how students are tested and so the system disincentivizes teaching in a way that would be the most effective. No standardized test will ever have a question that covers such a large territory of knowledge, even though that is precisely what makes interesting history, how it all fits together.

Still, a great teacher would find a way to bring in that style of teaching, if only in those rare moments when time allows.

“…from every part of Europe.”

By then, the king’s authority in America had been practically demolished, and his imperial interests elsewhere were being challenged. America was on its way to securing an independent destiny, basing the case for separation upon differences rather than likenesses between the two countries. Yet, the new nation revealed a natural kinship with the old world it professed to reject – not only with England, but with numerous other countries. In his Common Sense, Thomas Paine castigated the “false, selfish, narrow, and ungenerous” notion that England was the parent, or mother country of America. “Europe, and not England,” he protested, “is the parent country of America.” The New World had for years, he added, offered asylum to the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty “from every part of Europe.” That observation was heartily endorsed just a few years later by Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur, former French soldier and sometime resident of New York, in his Letters from an American Farmer. “What then is the American, this new man?” he asked in a widely quoted passage from that book. “He is either an European, or the descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. . . . Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”

Such observations were justified. One-third of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were of non-English stock, eight being first-generation immigrants. It was in recognition of the mixed European background of so many Americans that John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson later proposed that the official seal of the United States bear the national emblems of Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, and Holland as well as of England, thus “pointing out the countries from which these States have been peopled.” (This idea was abandoned.) The list might well have been much longer. There were Jews from Eastern Europe and from Spain and Portugal (via South America), Swedes, Walloons, Swiss, and still others. Many came, as Paine stated, in search of asylum. But they also came with an intent to preserve and refresh those aspects of life in their homelands which they best remembered and most highly valued.

In the world of 1776, Europe boasted a rich civilization, alive with dynamic ideas and with flourishing arts, with promising new concepts and methods in the sciences. The rudiments of modern industry and business administration were well founded, and social reforms were being undertaken, which Europeans took with them as they colonized and traded. They had come in contact with Eastern civilizations, above all, China, and this experience added significantly to the cosmopolitan culture of the Continent. The Pacific Ocean had been explored, and Australasia discovered; the knowledge gleaned from such expeditions was accelerating an ecological revolution of universal importance. This abundance of experience and knowledge that characterized the world of 1776 was the inheritance America shared as a birthright.

From The World in 1776
by Marshall B. Davidson
Kindle Locations 237-261

* * * *

This early diversity has been an ongoing interest of mine. I noticed this passage and was reminded again of this less known side of American history.

What particularly caught my attention was that, “One-third of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were of non-English stock, eight being first-generation immigrants.” It wasn’t just that several of the colonies had non-English majorities. The non-English ethnicity was even a major part of the ancestral background of the so-called founding fathers, among others in the upper classes.

I always wonder why such amazing facts aren’t typically taught in US schools. This is the kind of thing that would make history more interesting to students. Instead, we get over-simplified and dumbed-down boring accounts of our shared past. The actual full history would be too radical for respectable public consumption.

For more details, see my previous posts:

“Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America.”

General American and the Particulars of Our Origins

Origin of American Diversity

The Root and Rot of the Tree of Liberty

The Fight For Freedom Is the Fight To Exist: Independence and Interdependence

What Is A Superpower To Do?

There is a recent piece on American military superpower and its decline. The author is Tom Engelhardt. He concludes with these thoughts:

Under distinctly apocalyptic pressures, something seems to be breaking down, something seems to be fragmenting, and with that the familiar stories, familiar frameworks, for thinking about how our world works are losing their efficacy.

“Decline may be in the American future, but on a planet pushed to extremes, don’t count on it taking place within the usual tale of the rise and fall of great powers or even superpowers. Something else is happening on Planet Earth. Be prepared.”

The very last sentence is silly. I guess the author was trying to offer a glimmer of hope or something. I don’t think there is any preparing for the unknowable and unpredictable.

As for the rest, it resonates. There is no doubt that, in many ways, power is power and nothing really ever changes. However, something does feel different compared to past empires.

Still, Engelhadt in this piece isn’t up to tackling the full complexities. It’s not clear that the US military is actually failing. Most likely, it is simply serving a purpose other than what is stated. The global markets and access to foreign resources is being maintained for US corporate interests. The US military doesn’t need to win any wars to accomplish that.

Besides, I don’t think the military is the most basic issue. It’s just an expression of present conditions. The world doesn’t turn on mere military power.

Yet the point remains. Something seems different. We are up against walls that didn’t exist in the past. The world never before felt like such a small place. The superpowers are chafing against the constraints of earthly existence.

* * *

I noticed the article in question was posted in multiple places on the web, under different titles. I’ll give the link to two of these because you should read the comments sections.

The Superpower Conundrum: The Rise and Fall of Just About Everything
(Common Dreams)

America’s Got the #1 Military in the World — and It’s Increasingly Useless
(Alternet)

Who was Ronald Reagan? And what was the Reagan Revolution?

When Reagan was a Democrat, he was a union leader, socially liberal Hollywood actor, starry-eyed liberal progressive, anti-communist, pro-capitalist, ultra-nationalist, big-spending FDR New Deal supporter, big government public welfare state promoter, and patriotic cold warrior.

And then when Reagan became a Republican, he instead was a union opponent (although still able to get labor union support to get elected), socially liberal political actor, starry-eyed neoliberal progressive, anti-communist, pro-capitalist, ultra-nationalist, big-spending permanent debt-creating militarist, big government corporate welfare state promoter, and patriotic cold warrior.

Nothing fundamentally changed about Reagan, as he admitted. He liked to say that the Democratic Party left him. This is in a sense true as Democrats turned away from their racist past. Other things were involved as well.

I’d say that his shifting attitude about the New Deal welfare state was more situational, as many white Americans were less willing to support a welfare state after the Civil Rights movement because it meant blacks would have equal access to those public benefits. Reagan probably was always a racist, but it remained hidden behind progressivism until black rights forced it out into the open. Even his union views were more of a situational change, rather than an ideological change, for the Cold War reframed many issues.

The combination of Civil Rights movement and Cold War were a powerful force, the latter helping to make the former possible. The Cold War was a propaganda war. To prove democracy was genuinely better, the US government suddenly felt the pressure to live up to its own rhetoric about civil rights. Black activists pushed this to their advantage, and many whites in response went from liberalism to conservatism. This created a strange form of conservatism that was dominated by former progressives turned reactionary, which in some ways just meant a reactionary progressivism that hid behind conservative rhetoric.

This is how Reagan went from a standard progressive liberal to the ideal personification of reactionary conservatism. Yet he did this while politically remaining basically the same. Reagan didn’t change. The world around him changed. There was a society-wide political realignment that went beyond any individual person.

Still, it wasn’t just a party realignment with the old racist Southern Democrats switching loyalties to the Republicans. There was that, but also more than that. Many old school Democrats, even those outside of the South, changed party identification and voting patterns. Prior to the shift, many Republicans would praise liberalism (from Eisenhower to Nixon) and there was room for a left-wing within the party itself. After the switch, all of that was replaced by a mix of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, an alliance between economic libertarians and war hawks. So-called conservatism became a radical and revolutionary force of globalization.

The deeper shift involved not just to the political spectrum but the entire political framework and foundation. Everything shifted and became redefined, as if an earthquake had rearranged the geography of the country to such an extent that the old maps no longer matched reality.

One major change is that the noblesse oblige paternalism of the likes of the Roosevelts (TR and FDR) simply disappeared from mainstream politics, like Atlantis sinking below the waves never to be seen or heard from again. Politics became  unmoored from the past. Conservatism went full reactionary, leaving behind any trace of Old World traditionalism. Meanwhile, liberals became weak-minded centrists who have since then always been on the defense and leftists, as far as the mainstream was concerned, became near non-entities whose only use was for occasional resurrection as scapegoats (even then only as straw man scapegoats).

Two world wars had turned the Western world on its head. Following that mass destruction, the Cold War warped the collective psyche, especially in America. It’s as if someone took a baseball bat to Uncle Sam’s head and now he forever sees the world cross-eyed and with a few lost IQ points.

As with Reagan, nothing changed and yet everything changed. The Reagan Revolution was greater than just Reagan.

* * * *

http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1894529_1894528_1894518,00.html

He may be the patron saint of limited government, but Ronald Reagan started out as a registered Democrat and New Deal supporter. An F.D.R. fan, the Gipper campaigned for Helen Gahagan Douglas in her fruitless 1950 Senate race against Richard Nixon and encouraged Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for President as a Democrat in 1952. While he was working as a spokesman for General Electric, however, his views shifted right. “Under the tousled boyish haircut,” he wrote Vice President Nixon of John F. Kennedy in 1960, “is still old Karl Marx.” By the time it actually happened in 1962, Reagan’s decision to cross over to the GOP didn’t come as much of a surprise. “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party,” he famously said. “The party left me.”

http://www.politifact.com/florida/statements/2010/mar/30/charlie-crist/crist-says-reagan-was-democrat-converting-gop/

Giller said Reagan endorsed the presidential candidacies of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 as well as that of Nixon in 1960 “while remaining a Democrat.” [ . . . ]

Historian Edward Yager, a government professor at Western Kentucky University and author of the 2006 biography Ronald Reagan’s Journey: Democrat to Republican, said Reagan “was registered Democrat from the time that he voted for FDR in 1932, when he was 21.”

Yager said he’s never seen copies of the voter registration cards, but noted “virtually all the sources that refer to” Reagan’s party affiliation indicate that he was registered as a Democrat and that “he has two autobiographies in which he refers to his voting for FDR four times, then for Truman.” Reagan was a Democrat, added Yager, even when he voted for Dwight D. Eisenhower.

http://www.shmoop.com/reagan-era/ideology.html

Interestingly, Ronald Reagan himself did not always espouse the firm anti-government beliefs that eventually came to define Reaganism. As a young man, Reagan was actually a Roosevelt Democrat. The Reagan family only survived the Great Depression because Jack Reagan, young Ronnie’s unemployed father, was able to find a job in one of the New Deal’s work-relief programs. A few years later, Ronald Reagan found himself admiring Roosevelt’s leadership of America’s World War II effort to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. (Reagan joined the military but performed his wartime service in Hollywood, acting in American propaganda films.)

http://www.firstprinciplesjournal.com/articles.aspx?article=1082

Reagan was a New Deal Democrat. He joked that he had probably become a Democrat by birth, given that his father, Jack, was so devoted to the Democratic Party. The younger Reagan cast his first presidential vote in 1932 for Franklin Roosevelt, and did so again in the succeeding three presidential contests. His faith in FDR remained undimmed even after World War II, when he called himself “a New Dealer to the core.” He summarized his views in this way: “I thought government could solve all our postwar problems just as it had ended the Depression and won the war. I didn’t trust big business. I thought government, not private companies, should own our big public utilities; if there wasn’t enough housing to shelter the American people, I thought government should build it; if we needed better medical care, the answer was socialized medicine.” When his brother, Moon, became a Republican and argued with his sibling, the younger Reagan concluded “he was just spouting Republican propaganda.”

http://www.politicususa.com/2014/02/11/barack-obama-tax-spend-liberal-ronald-reagan.html

http://my.firedoglake.com/cenkuygur/2010/07/08/who-is-more-conservative-ronald-reagan-or-barack-obama/

http://mises.org/library/sad-legacy-ronald-reagan-0

http://open.salon.com/blog/rogerf1953/2010/01/29/the_myth_of_ronald_reagans_iconic_conservative_image

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/opinion/15herbert.html?_r=0

http://www.forwardprogressives.com/4-things-conservatives-hate-to-admit-about-ronald-reagan/

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/07/21/997013/-Ronald-Reagan-officially-too-liberal-for-modern-GOP

http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2003/0301.green.html

http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2011/02/05/142288/reagan-centennial/

http://www.nationalmemo.com/5-reasons-ronald-reagan-couldnt-make-it-in-todays-gop/

http://www.msnbc.com/the-last-word/watch/when-reagan-was-a-liberal-democrat-219696195576

https://books.google.com/books?id=U2cs7IHERBwC&pg=PA5&lpg=PA5&dq=Ronald+Reagan%E2%80%99s+Journey:+Democrat+to+Republican&source=bl&ots=iYjMx2KM_g&sig=gQtw5ENydTFPXhmJ0bOiAwIp_uE&hl=en&sa=X&ei=HyjAVLe2AYuVyATR8oKYBg&ved=0CCsQ6AEwBQ

To Be Ruled By Engineers

“Some of the sources of Chinese success and American decay are not entirely mysterious. As it happens, the typical professional background of a member of China’s political elite is engineering; they were taught to build things. Meanwhile, a remarkable fraction of America’s political leadership class attended law school, where they were trained to argue effectively and to manipulate. Thus, we should not be greatly surprised that while China’s leaders tend to build, America’s leaders seem to prefer endless manipulation, whether of words, money, or people.”
~ Ron Unz, China’s Rise, America’s Fall

This made me think of two things.

First, American poitics isn’t just dominated by lawyers and legal experts. It is also dominated by business managers.

The legal types are great at rhetoric and persuasion. They are the sophists of the modern age. They play at being statesmen, but law school doesn’t prepare them for what is needed to be statesmen. They are experts in legalese and so they create more of it, with bills so complex that even they can’t understand it all. Obfuscation is a large part of the game, clever minds trying to outwit other clever minds, and yet none of them as clever as they think they are. They get so lost in words and abstractions that they forget a democracy is supposed to be about the people.

The business types, however, have a different but equally problematic mindset. They see the government and the population as something to be managed. They are the technocrats who see themselves as a meritocratic plutocracy of pragmatic problem-solvers. They will get things done, democracy be damned, but they don’t actually know how to get things done because a democratic government is about as opposite as one can get from a for-profit corporation. The only way for them to succeed according to their skill set is to make government into an extension of business. That is how we ended up with what some call soft fascism, corporatism, or inverted totalitarianism.

These are the twin forces of bureaucracy. Neither type is trained for building things. They aren’t engineers. They don’t even have the training to deal with objective reality, as neither are they scientists. Far fewer have any kind of experience that would connect them to the larger world, especially to the lives and experience of most Americans.

They exist in a bubble. As I recall, in recent history, all presidents, vice presidents, and every major party candidate for those positions have come from one of two Ivy League schools, Harvard and Yale. Many of them belonged to the same fraternities and clubs, socialize among the same people at the same events, live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same churches, send their children to the same private schools, and get the basically same info from the same sources.

I’m not saying the Chinese political elite don’t also live in a bubble. But at least they have real world knowledge about building things. Is it any wonder that the American infrastructure is not being maintained and most definitely not being expanded? Americans once built great things. That is no longer the case.

I don’t see it as a mere coincidence that American mainstream society used to revere engineers and scientists. At one time, there was a great push to get American kids into these fields. The engineers and scientists were highly respected. They were the hereoes during an era when we were competing against first Nazi engineers and scientists and then later against Soviet engineers and scientists. With the ending of the Cold War, Americans have lost their edge and even China’s challenging our power has only been met with apathy and cynicism. Now Americans attack scientists as anti-American and, since the Space Race ended, don’t give much thought at all to engineers.

The Chinese aspire toward power and greatness. Whether or not they will succeed, that is their vision as a society, especially among the ruling elite. They do make major mistakes in thei engineering schemes, as they seek to socially engineer an entire society, but at least they are trying to improve themselves. We Americans, on the other hand, rest on our laurels. Too much success and power has made us lazy and self-satisfied.

The second thing I was reminded of is Rome. Americans inherited the European love of comparing themselves to Rome. The Roman Empire is the touchstone for Western Civilization. In that light, I offer the following:

“Rome lived upon its principal till ruin stared it in the face. Industry is the only true source of wealth, and there was no industry in Rome. By day the Ostia road was crowded with carts and muleteers, carrying to the great city the silks and spices of the East, the marble of Asia Minor, the timber of the Atlas, the grain of Africa and Egypt; and the carts brought out nothing but loads of dung. That was their return cargo.”
 ~ Winwood Reade, The Martyrdom of Man

That quote touched upon something that come up in a recent conversation. I forget the context, but the point made was about the contrast between the early and late Roman Empire. Romans didn’t start out as a ruling elite operating a bureaucratic empire. What allowed them to become an empire in the first place was that they were great engineers. They built things better than other people did, from roads to aqueducts.

Importantly, Romans weren’t even the most innovative society. The Greeks produced greater thinkers. It was the Romans who were better at building armies and waging war, and hence they defeated the Greeks. But once victorious, Romans were only able to build their great society by borrowing from the great thinkers of other societies, such as the Greeks.

That resonates with today. Many Americans will say admit that the Chinese are smarter and maybe are better at building things. However, we are supposed to believe that America will always come out ahead because we are innovative. Chinese are better taught in terms of the rote memory that is necessary for science and engineering, but Americans have more patents and nobel prizes. Ignoring that much of America’s innovation comes from immigrants, I’m not sure innovation by itself will keep us on top, assuming we want to stay on top.

The ancient Greeks boasted of having had a great society. Without Hellenism, Rome as we know it wouldn’t be possible. Still, I doubt it comforted those defeated Greeks that at least their culture lived on in the Roman Empire. As the US declines, should Americans comfort themselves that American culture has left a permanent mark on the world.

There was something that once made this country unique.

“When Thomas Huxley, a famous British biologist, visited America in 1876, he asked, as the ship approached the New York harbor, what were the tower and the tall building with a cupola – then the city’s most conspicuous structures. When he was told that they were the Tribune newspaper and the Western Union Telegraph buildings, he replied, “Ah, that is interesting; that is American. In the Old World the first thing you see as you approach a great city are [church] steeples; here you see first, centers of intelligence.””
 ~ Andrew Friend, A Bell Curve, Kindle Location 763

Now, as we look at growing US cities, what are the buildings that dominate the skyline?

Here in my local community, the tallest or one of the tallest buildings in the downtown used to be for a tech industry company. However, the most recent tallest buildings built are high-rise apartment buildings for the super wealthy and they are smack dab in the center of town, dominating not just the skyline but also towering over the public space of the pedestrian mall (one part of the pedestrian mall has for all intents and purposes been made into the front yard for one of these high-rises). That symbolically shows who dominates and rules this town.

In other places, the tallest buildings are increasingly finance-oriented. Many have noted the increasing financializatioin of the US economy. It should, of course, be noted that this financialization is propped up by the US dollar which is in turn propped up by debt the US owes China.

The US once could have been compared to the Greek Alexandrian Empire, but now the closer comparison is the late Roman Empire. Signs of decline and decay are everywhere. Yet our military might remains immense. We could hobble along like this for a few more generations. Or we could choose to not repeat history and instead take a different path.

American Celebration of War

I came across a claim that Mister Rogers (Fred Rogers) and Captain Kangaroo (Bob Keeshan) were war buddies.

Something about the story given made me suspicious. It fit too neatly into what uber-patriotic military supporters would like to believe. It seemed highly unlikely. I looked it up and it indeed turned out to be false. They never fought together. In fact, Keeshan never saw any military action and Rogers never served in the military.

What is the point of making up such falsehoods? I just don’t get it. Why does everything have to be made into yet more war propaganda? Come on, at least leave Mister Rogers alone. Why make such a well-loved children’s icon into a symbol of war?

All of this came up because people were posting stuff on Facebook as it was Memorial Day. This brings up a larger issue of how Memorial Day became a celebration of American patriotism and a celebration of all things related to American war and to American military power and greatness. There are various origins of the holiday, but all go back to the Civil War.

It officially began with an order given by Maj. Gen. John A. Logan. The celebration involved, among other activities, strewing flowers on both the graves of Union soldiers and Confederate soldiers. The history of the Civil War puts the celebration in context. That era of conflict was the greatest threat and undermining to American patriotism that this country has ever experienced. The first Memorial Day was in honor of Americans killing and being killed by other Americans. It wasn’t just self-sacrifice of soldiers for their country, but also the self-sacrifice of the entire country in a war that split apart the American population, that split apart communities and families.

However, many earlier celebrations happened. The earliest of them all involved former slaves in South Carolina. They went to a mass grave of Union soldiers in a Confederate prison camp. They did individual reburials and then held a massive parade of thousands. For these former slaves, what they were celebrating was freedom and the sacrifice of those who had ended slavery. But the enemies of freedom in this case were also Americans, just as the former slaves were Americans. The fight for freedom that Memorial Day represents was a struggle within American society against those who wanted mass oppression to continue.

The best way to celebrate Memorial Day would be to honor the conflict that continues to exist in American society and to fight for greater freedom for all Americans. This struggle is far from over.

As an additional thought, I was reminded of the origins of Mother’s Day. It also began with the Civil War. The meaning of Mother’s Day isn’t about some apolitical celebration of motherhood. I’m a big fan of mothers as far as that go, but it is a shame that the holiday has become so superficial. The motivation behind the first Mother’s Day was to protest the carnage of the Civil War. It was a declaration of peace and demand for pacifism. It was an honoring of the mother’s who lost their sons to pointless bloodshed.

Why does everything get obscured that doesn’t contribute to simplistic patriotic propaganda? And why does everything have to serve the American war mentality or else be neutered of its criticism of the same?

The United States was founded on a violent revolution. But it wasn’t fought for patriotism. If those early colonists had cared about patriotism, they would have remained loyal British subjects.

When Memorial Day comes around, I always feel confused about what I’m supposed to be celebrating or honoring. I’m not a pacifist. The military sometimes is necessary. Some wars are started for worthy reasons and achieve worthy ends. Even so, what was so honorable about all the soldiers sent to their death in Iraq, a war that killed even larger numbers of innocent civilians? Those soldiers, sadly, didn’t die fighting for the freedom of Americans. When was the last time that American soldiers fought for anything as noble of a cause as freeing slaves?

Maybe we should spend holidays such as Memorial Day and Mother’s Day contemplating the continued violence and oppression in our own society.

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.