Dickinson’s Purse and Sword

A lesser known founding father is John Dickinson, but he should be more well known considering how important he was at the time. His politics could today be described as moderate conservatism or maybe status quo liberalism. During conflict with the British Empire, he hoped the colonial leaders would seek reconciliation. Yet even as he refused to sign the Declaration of Independence, not based on principle but prudence, he didn’t stand in the way of those who supported it. And once war was under way, he served in the revolutionary armed forces. After that, he was a key figure in developing the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.

Although a Federalist, he was highly suspicious of nationalism, the two being distinguished at the time. It might be noted that, if not for losing the war of rhetoric, the Anti-Federalists would be known as Federalists for they actually wanted a functioning federation. Indeed, Dickinson made arguments that are more Anti-Federalist in spirit. An example of this is his warning against a centralized government possessing both purse and sword, that is to say a powerful government that has both a standing army and the means of taxation to fund it without any need of consent of the governed. That is what the Articles protected against and the Constitution failed to do.

That warning remains unheeded to this day. And so the underlying issue remains silenced, the conflict and tension remains unresolved. The lack of political foresight and moral courage was what caused the American Revolution, the problems (e.g., division of power) arising in the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution still being problems generations later. The class war and radical ideologies from the 17th century led to the decades of political strife and public outrage prior to the official start of the American Revolution. But the British leadership hoped to continue to suppress the growing unrest, similar to how present American leadership hopes for the same and probably with the same eventual result.

What is interesting is how such things never go away and how non-radicals like Dickinson can end up giving voice to radical ideas. The idea of the purse strings being held by a free people, i.e., those taxed having the power of self-governance to determine their own taxation,  is not that far off from Karl Marx speaking of workers controlling the means of production — both implying that a society is only free to the degree people are free. Considering Dickinson freed the slaves he inherited, even a reluctant revolutionary such as himself could envision the radicalism of a free people.

* * *

On a related thought, one of the most radical documents, of course, was Thomas Jefferson’s strongly worded Declaration of Independence. It certainly was radical when it was written and, as with much else from that revolutionary era, maintains its radicalism to this day.

The Articles of Confederation, originally drafted by Dickinson, were closely adhering to the guiding vision of the Declaration.  Even though Dickinson was against declaring independence until all alternatives had been exhausted, once independence had been declared he was very much about following a course of moral principle as set down by that initial revolutionary document.

Yet the Constitution, that is the second constitution after the Articles, was directly unconstitutional and downright authoritarian according to the Articles.  The men of the Constitutional Convention blatantly disregarded their constitutional mandate in their having replaced the Articles without constitutional consensus and consent, that is to say it was a coup (many of the revolutionary soldiers didn’t take this coup lightly and continued the revolutionary war through such acts as Shay’s Rebellion, which was violently put down by the very Federal military that the Anti-Federalists warned about).

But worse still, the Constitution ended up being a complete betrayal of the Declaration which set out the principles that justified a revolution in the first place. As Howard Schartz put it:

“The Declaration itself, by contrast, never envisioned a Federal government at all. Ironically, then, if one wants to see the political philosophy of the United States in the Declaration of Independence, one should theoretically be against any form of federal government and not just for a particular interpretation of its limited powers.”
(Liberty In America’s Founding Moment, Kindle Locations 5375-5378)

It does seem that the contradiction bothered Dickinson. But he wasn’t a contrarian by nature, much less a rabblerouser. Once it was determined a new constitution was going to be passed, he sought the best compromise he saw as possible, although on principle he still refused to show consent by being a signatory. As for Jefferson, whether or not he ever thought the Constitution was a betrayal of the Declaration, he assumed any constitution was an imperfect document and that no constitution would or should last beyond his own generation.

* * *

Letters from a Farmer
Letter IX

No free people ever existed, or can ever exist, without keeping, to use a common, but strong expression, “the purse strings,” in their own hands. Where this is the case, they have a constitutional check upon the administration, which may thereby be brought into order without violence: But where such a power is not lodged in the people, oppression proceeds uncontrolled in its career, till the governed, transported into rage, seek redress in the midst of blood and confusion.

Letter II

Nevertheless I acknowledge the proceedings of the convention furnish my mind with many new and strong reasons, against a complete consolidation of the states. They tend to convince me, that it cannot be carried with propriety very far—that the convention have gone much farther in one respect than they found it practicable to go in another; that is, they propose to lodge in the general government very extensive powers—powers nearly, if not altogether, complete and unlimited, over the purse and the sword. But, in its organization, they furnish the strongest proof that the proper limbs, or parts of a government, to support and execute those powers on proper principles (or in which they can be safely lodged) cannot be formed. These powers must be lodged somewhere in every society; but then they should be lodged where the strength and guardians of the people are collected. They can be wielded, or safely used, in a free country only by an able executive and judiciary, a respectable senate, and a secure, full, and equal representation of the people. I think the principles I have premised or brought into view, are well founded—I think they will not be denied by any fair reasoner. It is in connection with these, and other solid principles, we are to examine the constitution. It is not a few democratic phrases, or a few well formed features, that will prove its merits; or a few small omissions that will produce its rejection among men of sense; they will inquire what are the essential powers in a community, and what are nominal ones; where and how the essential powers shall be lodged to secure government, and to secure true liberty.

Letter III

When I recollect how lately congress, conventions, legislatures, and people contended in the cause of liberty, and carefully weighed the importance of taxation, I can scarcely believe we are serious in proposing to vest the powers of laying and collecting internal taxes in a government so imperfectly organized for such purposes. Should the United States be taxed by a house of representatives of two hundred members, which would be about fifteen members for Connecticut, twenty-five for Massachusetts, etc., still the middle and lower classes of people could have no great share, in fact, in taxation. I am aware it is said, that the representation proposed by the new constitution is sufficiently numerous; it may be for many purposes; but to suppose that this branch is sufficiently numerous to guard the rights of the people in the administration of the government, in which the purse and sword are placed, seems to argue that we have forgotten what the true meaning of representation is. I am sensible also, that it is said that congress will not attempt to lay and collect internal taxes; that it is necessary for them to have the power, though it cannot probably be exercised. I admit that it is not probable that any prudent congress will attempt to lay and collect internal taxes, especially direct taxes: but this only proves that the power would be improperly lodged in congress, and that it might be abused by imprudent and designing men.

Letter XVII

It is said, that as the federal head must make peace and war, and provide for the common defense, it ought to possess all powers necessary to that end: that powers unlimited, as to the purse and sword, to raise men and monies, and form the militia, are necessary[168] to that end; and, therefore, the federal head ought to possess them. This reasoning is far more specious than solid: it is necessary that these powers so exist in the body politic, as to be called into exercise whenever necessary for the public safety; but it is by no means true, that the man, or congress of men, whose duty it more immediately is to provide for the common defense, ought to possess them without limitation. But clear it is, that if such men, or congress, be not in a situation to hold them without danger to liberty, he or they ought not to possess them. It has long been thought to be a well-founded position, that the purse and sword ought not to be placed in the same hands in a free government. Our wise ancestors have carefully separated them—placed the sword in the hands of their king, even under considerable limitations, and the purse in the hands of the commons alone: yet the king makes peace and war, and it is his duty to provide for the common defense of the nation. This authority at least goes thus far—that a nation, well versed in the science of government, does not conceive it to be necessary or expedient for the man entrusted with the common defense and general tranquility, to possess unlimitedly the powers in question, or even in any considerable degree.

You might be an Anti-Federalist and not know it

If you’re an American who doesn’t know what the Federalists and Anti-Federalists were fighting about or doesn’t even know that such a fight happened, you need to immediately learn about it.

The actual debates framed in these terms began during the American Revolution. But the larger debate had been going on in the American colonies since the English Civil War, the time when a king was beheaded long before the French Revolution. The revolution as a struggle had been happening for generations prior to the official revolution. It was a fight that took its most clear form against colonial elites in conflicts such as the War of Regulation, turned into revolution against imperialism and elitism during the American Revolution, and then continued to flare up after the revolution in struggles against continued injustice and oppression as seen with Shay’s Rebellion and the slave revolts.

Right from the beginning, it divided the country into two factions that at times fought almost as ruthlessly with one another as they had done with the British soldiers. A two party system formed out of it, something many of the founders wanted to avoid and saw as a sign of failure. The debate and struggle of power would continue, the last founders living long enough to see the growing conflicts that would eventually overtake the country during the Civil War.

It was far more than a war of words, but words matter because they are powerful in shaping our minds. It is through words that we know the past which determines how we are able to envision the future. This old debate is at the heart of every conflict in US history, not even primarily a fight between the left and right. The revolution never ended. It just constantly took new forms and was fought on new battlefields. It was less violent at times, but it has never gone dormant.

The first thing to know about this is a point of confusion. The Anti-Federalists were the strongest supporters of Federalism. But they lost the war of rhetoric, partly because the (pseudo-)Federalists smashed their printing presses and passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, basically making free speech illegal only years after free speech was used to win the revolution.

The Anti-Federalists (AKA the real Federalists) warned about many things that have since come to pass. Many of their predictions were proven true even in their lifetime, such as the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Anti-Federalists were trying to prevent the problems before they happened. But the oligarchic (pseudo-)Federalists didn’t see concentrated wealth and power as a problem, as many of them wanted a ruling elite to act similarly to the British monarchy and aristocracy.

Here is the tricky part. Obviously, the Anti-Federalists lost power and that is why we have the present dysfunctional political system. It is easier to prevent problems than to solve them after they’ve been entrenched for centuries. Regaining the original Anti-Federalist vision that inspired the American Revolution and founded a new nation is much more difficult because almost all memory of it has been written out of the mainstream history books, censored from political debate, and so erased from public memory.

A good first step would be for more people to simply learn about it. There is no way for Americans to fight for freedom and liberty, justice and fairness when they lack comprehension of what those values mean within the American tradition. Those values were betrayed. The Anti-Federalists can help Americans understand why that happened and what was lost.

The voice and echo of the Anti-Federalists was heard…

When Patrick Henry declared, “Give me liberty or give me death”… When Paine advocated for a basic income in compensation for the privatization of the commons… When women voted in New Jersey right after the American Revolution… When the citizens of Vermont abolished slavery almost a hundred years before the rest of the country…

When Lincoln stated that, “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital”… When FDR pushed for a Second Bill of Rights… When Eisenhower warned of the Military-Industrial Complex…

When Thoreau went to prison for not paying taxes that supported war of aggression… When Darrow fought for the separation of church and state within public education… When Debs spoke out for the working man… When MLK demanded freedom and justice for all…

When third party candidates such as Nader have challenged the two-party stranglehold… When the largest protest movement in world history formed to oppose the Iraq War, a war of aggression, before it even began… When Americans desecrate symbols of oppression and violence… When Americans demand their forces be heard as authoritarianism threatens…

And on and on. It continues.

We Anti-Federalists are still here. And we will go on reminding our fellow Americans what real Federalism is about. If you believe in a free democratic society, if you support basic human rights and civil liberties, if you oppose injustice and oppression, then you might be an Anti-Federalist and not know it.

Join the revolution! But remember, the revolution begins in the mind.

The Hidden Desire of the Imperial Subject

Anti-Federalists were to Federalists as Marxists were to Stalinists. The Anti-Federalists considered themselves to be the real federalists, similar to how some Marxists have thought of themselves as the real communists.

The Federalists and Stalinists turned out to be just different varieties of imperialists, something the Anti-Federalists and Marxists opposed. That is what the Cold War ended up being about, which imperialism would control the world. Oddly, the rhetoric of Anti-Federalism and Marxism was sometimes used to this end, as a rationalization of and distraction from the real purpose of accumulated power.

People are so easily deceived by rhetoric. But I wonder if there is more to it than that. I’ve recently thought that people accept the rhetoric even though at some level they know it’s propaganda. Many people simply want to be lied to by their political officials because it gives them plausible deniability. That way, they don’t have to admit they too want an empire.

It’s understandable, this divide in the public mind. We’ve been taught that empires are supposed to be bad. And no one wants to think of themselves as a bad person or as part of a bad society. Yet as imperial subjects, we gain many benefits: cheap products, freedom to travel, a protected life, etc. As long as an individual doesn’t challenge that power, the individual can live a good life within the empire. We grow accustomed to such benefits and they make it easier for us to quiet the voice of our conscience.

It’s hard to gain the self-awareness, social understanding, historical perspective, and moral courage to speak out against injustice and immorality. Few ever do so.

The Radicalism of The Articles of Confederation

I was amused by a LA Times article by Joseph Ellis, a well known and respected historian. The article is Tea party wants to take America back — to the 18th century, from about a year ago (October 15, 2013). I’m not familiar with his politics, but going by this article he sounds like some variety of liberal or progressive, although in some other writings he can come off as the most dour of conservatives.

In the last part of the article, Ellis writes:

“But their ultimate destination, I believe, is the 1780s and our dysfunctional government under the Articles of Confederation. The states were sovereign in that post-revolutionary arrangement, and the federal government was virtually powerless. That is political paradise for the tea partiers, who might take comfort in the fact that their 18th century counterparts also refused to fund the national debt. Their core convictions are pre-Great Society, pre-New Deal, pre-Keynes, pre-Freud, pre-Darwin and pre-Constitution.”

I don’t think this is fair as a generalization. Most Tea Partiers aren’t really far right libertarians or any other variety of radical minarchists. Sure, some might like to push the country back, but the Tea Party is too diverse of a movement to base broad generalizations about.

Ellis thinks, “This is nostalgia on steroids, and an utter absurdity, defying more than 200 years of American history.” That probably is accurate for many attracted to far right rhetoric. They call them reactionaries for a good reason. Still, this seems too dismissive. I know some Tea Partiers and they aren’t merely nostalgic.

That said, I would agree that many on the political right “truly believe that government is “them,” not “us.”” — or are at least prone to being persuaded by the rhetoric that expresses this view. But as far that goes, I might agree with them on this issue, in a general sense, if not the specifics.

I would argue that we don’t have a genuinely and fully functioning democracy, not to say those on the right want democracy, assuming they even knew what it means. To broaden the issue, it is safe to say the US isn’t at present either a liberal democracy or a conservative republic, not making morally principled people on either side happy with the status quo. If we aren’t already a banana republic, a corporatist police state, and a military-industrial empire, we are coming damn close to it. I have little faith that the government represents “us” (the People, both left and right) to any great degree. With big money campaigning, lobbying, regulatory capture, and revolving doors, I must admit the government feels more like “them” than “us”.

Does that make me a Tea Partier? Or else a libertarian? If so, I’m fine with that. Just as long as I can be left-liberaltarian Tea Partier.

“The heartening news is that their like-minded predecessors over the last two centuries have lost every major battle, starting with the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 and ending with the congressional vote and the Supreme Court decision on Obamacare.”

Yes, the opponents of big, centralized, and oppressive government have been losing battles for a long time. I find this to be a sad conclusion to come to. I suspect it saddens Ellis as well.

I’m not inspired by the Cosnstitutional Convention that betrayed the very ideals and values the revolution was fought for. Does that make me a nostalgic reactionary? I don’t think so. It just makes me a concerned citizen who actually believes in what originally inspired the founding of this country. This country was founded on the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, not the Constitution. The only purpose the Constitutional Convention was intended to serve was to improve, not replace, the Articles of Confederation.

“The historical pattern is perfectly clear. They are going to lose again because they are running against the main currents of history. But along the way they are making all the rest of us pay a heavy price for their delusional agenda. And they really don’t care.”

We are in a quagmire. Those defending the status quo are part of the problem. And too often even those who are critical of the problems aren’t able to see and think clearly, for all the fog of propaganda and spin, for all the historical ignorance and hagiography. Most Americans, left and right, are almost completely clueless about our country’s origins.

“Dysfunction this deep strikes me as a new low in American history. This is not what the founders had in mind.”

We are at a low point, but I’m not sure how new it is. As for the founders, I’m surprised to see a historian make that statement. The founders were constantly disagreeing and arguing about almost everything. Ellis is falling into the same ideological trap that many Tea Partiers fall into. He talks as if the founders were of one mind.

Ellis is practicing rhetoric here for the sake of making an ideological argument. But as a historian, he knows better (American Creation, Kindle Locations 1488-1498):

“If Washington was right, the burgeoning American empire required a fully empowered central government to manage its inevitable expansion across the continent. But such a national government contradicted the most cherished political values the American Revolution claimed to stand for. From Washington’s perspective the Confederation Congress appeared “little more than an empty sound” or “a Nugatory body” destined to “sink into contempt in the eyes of Europe.” From the perspective of the vast majority of American citizens, however, the inherent weakness of the Articles of Confederation was a shining example of republican principles, since a strong central government replicated the distant and despotic political power against which they had recently rebelled.3

“The gap between these two political camps was an unbridgeable chasm separated by a fundamental difference of opinion over the true meaning of the American Revolution. The outright nationalists, of whom Washington and most officers in the Continental Army were the most outspoken advocates, were a decided minority at war’s end. The staunch confederationists, on the other hand, were a clear majority who also enjoyed the incalculable ideological advantage of knowing that a powerful American nation-state violated the hallowed political principles embodied in “the spirit of ’76.””

Why be dismissive of any attempt by Americans to focus on the revolutionary era? Any interest in history should be encouraged, not criticized. Even if imperfect, the impulse behind the Tea Party is correct. That impulse is to go back to first principles, to remind ourselves why a revolution was fought in the first place.

* * * *

Political rhetoric aside, I wanted to engage more fully this issue of the Articles of Confederation. It has been on my mind this past week. This seems like a sore point for some Americans, those informed enough to even know what the Articles are and what led to their demise.

The Articles represent one of the first great failures of the revolutionary era. It wasn’t just a failure of a particular governing system, but a failure of the of the very principles of the “Spirit of ’76”. The United States was founded on two documents — firstly, The Declaration of Independence and, secondly, the Articles of Declaration. The Constitution (or rather the second constitution, following the Articles) came much later and was a very different kind of document, a product of fear and uncertainty, not of hope and idealism.

The Constitution was the Great Compromise, leaving no one entirely satisfied. Worse still, the second constitution was unconstitutional according to the first constitution. The Articles, unlike the Constitution, was agreed to unanimously, freely, and openly. Also, keep in mind the full title: The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. It was deemed to be perpetual and to be a union, that is to say an everlasting confederation. It was created unanimously which means by the consent of the governed and so its revocation would also have to be unanimous, as described in the Articles themselves.

In another article, Ellis admits to the sorry state of affairs from which our constitutional order began:

“[O]nce you understand how the Constitution was created, all rosy myths evaporate. Fifty-five white males gathered in Philadelphia, imposed complete censorship over the deliberations, regarded slavery as the ghost at the banquet (it could not be openly debated), and then had the audacity to send the document to the states under the rhetorical mantle “We, the people.” If our modern values of inclusiveness, transparency and diversity were imposed on the founders, the Constitution would never have happened.”

For some reason, Ellis seems unwilling or unable to take these historical figures on their own terms, at least in this case.

The Anti-Federalists were fighting for these precise “modern values”. This the basis of the criticisms the Anti-Federalists had of the Constitutional Convention and of the Federalist-Nationalist ideology it represented, and hence their demanding a Bill of Rights.

It isn’t we Americans today who are anachronistically projecting our values onto the past. Our present values in basic form came from the revolutionary era. The American Revolution was an event of modernity and of the making of modernity. The values of “inclusiveness, transparency and diversity” formed much of the background and inspiration to the Articles of Confederation, both in terms of Dickinson’s Quaker-inspired original draft and in terms of the final draft edited down to better fit the Anti-Federalist vision.

A number of things make the Articles of Confederation distinct from the Constitution. In final form, the Articles described the condition of the states with terms such as free, independent, and sovereign. The federal government couldn’t tax the people directly. It was the state governments that represented the people and so taxed the people. The federal government taxed the states as representatives of the people.

This constitutional vision was turned on its head with the Constitutional Convention. The consent of the governed was changed from reality to mere symbol. In practice, all consent was gone. Consent of the governed wasn’t required nor was it allowed to be refused or retracted. Constitutional authority was declared by fiat, no unanimity involved. The aspiring ruling elite found consent of the governed to be too messy, as they learned from Shay’s Rebellion. The People had to be put in their place and a large central government had to be placed over them, by military force when necessary. The exact same arguments the British Empire used to keep the colonists in line were now being used by the US federal government.

This relates to why Ellis found it odd that so many Tea Partiers claim the Constitution as a protection of states rights. There is the Tenther movement that invokes the 10th amendment to attack what they consider government overreach, but obviously these people haven’t read it very closely:

“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.”

That “or to the people” is a loophole large enough to drive a truck through. In the very making of the Constitution, a symbolic and empty “We the people” was assumed to justify the secretive process the ruling elites used to push through their agenda. The Constitution didn’t make it all that clear who precisely represented the people, but obviously the Constitution was based on the claim of representing the people.

The 10th amendment offers absolutely no protection whatsoever. To clarify this point, consider its equivalent in the Articles of Confederation:

“Article II. Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”

The Articles makes this point as clear as possible. No loopholes stated or implied.

There were definitely challenges to the Articles of Confederation. Those pushing for a new constitution saw the Confederation as a government failure. However, most Americans didn’t see any problem with it at all. It was an alliance formed during war time. It’s purpose was constrained by design, and so wasn’t a failure. In fact, it was a grand success by its own defined intent.

Once war was over, the alliance became less important. They didn’t need a central government to tell them how to govern themselves or to tell them they had rights. Because of colonialism, the states had long-established governments of their own and as a cultural inheritance they simply assumed they had rights.

The reason they sought independence from the British Empire was the same motivation behind Anti-Federalism, both cases being a response to those supporting large centralized government. For quite some time, the colonies were governed very loosely by the distant and initially weak British Empire. Colonists got used to solving their own problems with their relatively independent colonial governments. Each colony had its separate political traditions that had become integral to the local communities.

Colonists didn’t want to give up their traditions of self-government when the British Empire decided to get heavy-handed. Likewise, the colonists turned revolutionaries continued to demand self-governance.

* * * *

Two points should be made.

First, the American Revolution began before the so-called founders got involved and it continued long after the new ruling elite declared it over. The Long American Revolution began at least as early as the War of Regulation and continued at least as late as Shay’s Rebellion. It was always as much of a civil war as it was a revolution. The founders were forced to join the revolution or else become enemies of it.

This brings me to the second point. The Revolution always had a component of class war as well. In saying that, I don’t mean “class” in a simple sense. Economics is only one part of class. It isn’t simply about how much money one makes or much consumer goods one can buy. Rather, it is about an entire social order. Not all societies are class-based or equally class-based. Class only has effective significance to the degree it can be enforced by a specific kind of system of power and authority.

Class war is yet another issue that Ellis doesn’t understand. In a different article, he reviews Harvey J. Kaye’s Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. He makes the argument that,

“Ironically, the very feature of Paine’s mentality that Kaye most admires — its radicalism — is precisely the feature his most ardent critics at the time found most troubling. Kaye, the author and editor of several books, including ”Are We Good Citizens?,” tends to label Paine’s enemies elitists, wealthy aristocrats deaf to the authentically egalitarian ethos of his working-class politics. But this quasi-Marxist gloss obscures the fundamental ideological difference between Paine and most of the other founders. John Adams, for example, who was the son of a shoemaker, loathed Paine. Adams regarded the effort to implement the full revolutionary agenda immediately as a path leading over the cliffs of Dover.

“What separated Paine and Adams was not class so much as a classic disagreement over how to manage and secure a revolution. Adams believed in gradual change, in an evolutionary revolution. Paine believed that the revolutionary agenda, ”the spirit of ’76,” did not need to be managed, only declared. Adams regarded the Revolution as the Big Bang in the American political universe, which should radiate its radical energies and implications only slowly into the future. The Paine approach was, in fact, the more radical course followed by the French Revolution. It ended up, as Adams predicted, in barrels of blood and Napoleonic despotism. Paine himself nearly perished in the process he had helped to start, saved from the guillotine only when a prison guard neglected to remove him from his cell on the day of executions. Perhaps this is the reason one scholar named Paine the ”Peter Pan of the Age of Reason.””

That comes off as not only an ideologically slanted take on history but also not even historically accurate, entirely ignoring the larger context while also dismissing out of hand the other side of the story. That is quite the criticism to make against a man who makes his livelihood as a historian, both in writing and teaching. Let me break it down to explain my complaint.

There was good reason for Paine’s radicalism. He didn’t begin that way. The conditions of his early life prepared him for what he would become, but he wasn’t aspiring to be a rabblerouser. He worked as a civil servant for the British government at one point and sought reform within the system. Only after that failed, did his path slowly move him more fully beyond the social order he was born into. Along the way, he experienced death of loved ones, unemployment, homelessness, poverty, and all forms of oppression. In London, he saw the dregs of society and he saw the beginnings of working class organizing.

Someone like John Adams may have learned a trade just like Paine, but the life he knew was one of comfort and safety. To know a trade in the colonies meant something quite different. There was a smaller class divide. Compared to Britain, the colonial poor had more opportunity for upward mobility and the colonial aristocracy had less concentrated wealth. The social order was also less oppressive in the colonies because local government was weaker and one was always free to live off the land, something entirely impossible in England during that time of the land enclosure movement that led to food riots.

Class war was an ever-present reality in London where Paine spent many influential years. This gave Paine an insight and a moral righteousness lacking in most American colonists. It took Paine to explain to the colonists precisely what was wrong about the British Empire, precisely what they needed to fight against.

The problem with the oppressed in England was that oppression was all they knew. The problem with those who thought they were being oppressed in America is that they didn’t know what real oppression was like. Paine sought to bridge the two societies and that is why he was so radical.

Ellis portrays Paine as an anarchist, a naive anarchist at that. This is where Ellis’ conservative side shows itself. He presents a Federalist view of Paine, and so he shows his ideological bias.

The Federalist ruling elite started off as the colonial ruling elite. Their power and authority originally was backed by the British Empire. Having severed ties from the very justification for their social position and wealth, they had to create a new social order to re-establish the social order they were accustomed to. As such, they feared what they perceived as ‘anarchy’.

Even Ellis is able to offer a more nuanced view in response to this Federalist fearmongering. He discusses this in his book, American Creation (Kindle Locations 1558-1572):

“James Madison was one of the critics who did grasp this frustrating fact: “The question whether it is possible and worthwhile to preserve the Union of the States,” he warned in 1786, “must be speedily decided one way or other. Those who are indifferent to the preservation would do well to look forward to the consequences of its extinction.” The word that Madison, along with most critics of the current confederation, used to describe the consequences of inaction was “anarchy,” a term suggesting utter chaos, widespread violence, possible civil war between or among the states, and the likely intervention of several European powers eager to exploit the political disarray for their own imperial purposes.11

“While we can never know for sure, since history veered sharply in another direction at the end of the decade, the most likely outcome if the Articles of Confederation collapsed was not anarchy but dismemberment into two or three separate confederacies. Madison himself acknowledged that the gossip mills in both Europe and America were predicting that the imminent dissolution of the Articles would probably lead to “a partition of the states into two or more Confederacies.” An article in the Boston Independent Chronicle envisioned a regional union of five New England states, leaving “the rest of the continent to pursue their own imbecilic and disjointed plans.” The most probable scenario was a tripartite division of regional alliances that created an American version of Europe. New England would be like Scandinavia, the middle Atlantic states like western Europe, the states south of the Potomac like the Mediterranean countries. How this new American trinity would have fared over the ensuing decades is anybody’s guess. Whether it would have become a mere way station on the road to civil war and foreign invasion or a stable set of independent republics that coexisted peacefully and prosperously is impossible to know. But separate confederacies, not outright anarchy, appeared the most likely alternative if and when the Articles dissolved.12”

Paine’s ideals and activism (along with Anti-Federalism in general) seems rather reasonable when put in this context. What was all the fearmongering about? Considering the problems that have plagued the US government ever since, maybe it would have been good for the states to have maintained their sovereignty as have European countries. I personally wouldn’t mind living in a Midwestern version of Scandinavia.

Why is Paine’s influence in France supposedly to be blamed for the ensuing social chaos but his even greater influence in America is no big deal? There was no actual threat of anarchy, as Ellis admits. There is no honest argument to be made in claiming Paine somehow caused or even contributed to the Jacobin Reign of Terror, especially considering that Paine sat on the right in the French Assembly which was opposite of the Jacobins who famously sat on the left. Paine risked his life in opposing the Jacobins at every turn.

Paine believed in democracy, and in fact was one of the few people in the colonies who would openly use the word “democracy” in a positive sense, as most colonists had little knowledge and no experience of what democracy even meant beyond ancient histories such as about Socrates’ death. The failure of the French Revolution can’t be blamed on Paine any more than the failure of the American Revolution. He was but one voice in a cacophany of voices. Anyway, he made it clear that the onus of responsibility was not on the radicals who promoted democracy but on the reactionaries who resisted it. If the French revolutionaries had put forth a democratic constitution as the Americans did with the Articles of Confederation, Paine argued, then the catastrophe of Reign of Terror could have been avoided.

Ellis’ historical knowledge of the French Revolution, going by what he states in that quote, is about as unimpressive as is found among the typical American. I expect more insight and understanding from a practicing historian. Heck, I’m just a working class schmuck who dropped out of college and I apparently have a better grasp of the French Revolution, a set of events immensely more complex than Ellis appreciates (see: Failed Revolutions All Around, Revolutions: American and French along with Part 2, and The Haunted Moral Imagination).

Ellis shares the conservative attitude toward the French Revolution. He sounds downright Burkean.

* * * *

I came across a decent analysis of the views of Burke and Paine. The author (George H. Smith) discusses a number of issues, from Lockean contract theory to constitutionalism, but most relevantly he brings up the notion of an anarchistic state of nature, the bogeyman of every argument for large centralized government, be it monarchistic imperialism or federalist nationalism. It must be remembered that Burke didn’t just attack the French Revolution but did so in order to defend the French monarchy as a morally good and stable social order, although ultimately what Burke was defending by proxy was the English monarchy.

Here is what Smith has to say:

“If, as Paine argued, the people create a government through the mechanism of a constitution, then (in accordance with the Lockean version of a social compact) they must first agree unanimously to incorporate themselves into a political body that is thereafter governed by majority rule. Without this foundation of unanimous consent, “there can be no such thing as majority or minority; or power in any one person to bind another.” As Locke himself conceded, no one may be compelled to abandon the state of nature and obey the will of the majority in political decision making. Thus, according to Burke, no constitution ratified by a majority of the people may be deemed legitimate unless every individual under the jurisdiction of that constitution has previously agreed to become a member of that civil society called “the people.” Only this prior consent can morally obligate individuals to obey the will of the majority. Therefore, according to Burke, Paine’s notion of a constitution based on the consent of the governed “must be grounded on two assumptions; first, that of an incorporation produced by unanimity; and secondly, an unanimous agreement, that the act of a mere majority (say of one) shall pass with them and with others as the act of the whole.”

“Having taken Lockean social contract theorists at their word, Burke had no problem demonstrating that the Paineite defenders of the French Revolution failed to fulfill their own criteria for a legitimate constitution. A revolution, by dissolving the current government, places individuals in a state of nature—a condition in which they may refuse to incorporate themselves once again into a civil society and so have no moral obligation to obey the will of the majority. After a revolution, the process of incorporation that creates “the people” (in a legal sense) must begin anew, and a new civil society, in the Lockean scheme, requires the consent of every member who is to be governed by the majority. Thus a constitution, even if it is directly ratified by a majority of the people, cannot bind individuals who never agreed to become members of that civil society in the first place.

“Of course, Burke intended his critical analysis of majority rule to apply to more than the French Revolution and its defenders. Burke’s attack was meant to undermine the very foundation of Lockean social contract theory by showing that it is unable to rescue us from the anarchical state of nature. Like previous critics of political individualism, Burke maintained that those philosophers who begin with natural rights in a state of nature are forever doomed, theoretically speaking, to remain in that anarchistic condition, because the requirement of unanimous consent has never been met—whether in France, America, or any other country. By Lockean standards, therefore, no government in history was or is legitimate.”

What Smith failed to add was that Paine was influenced by Quaker constitutionalism. In a footnote to Observations on the Declaration of Rights, Paine writes that,

“There is a single idea, which, if it strikes rightly upon the mind, either in a legal or a religious sense, will prevent any man or any body of men, or any government, from going wrong on the subject of religion; which is, that before any human institutions of government were known in the world, there existed, if I may so express it, a compact between God and man, from the beginning of time: and that as the relation and condition which man in his individual person stands in towards his Maker cannot be changed by any human laws or human authority, that religious devotion, which is a part of this compact, cannot so much as be made a subject of human laws; and that all laws must conform themselves to this prior existing compact, and not assume to make the compact conform to the laws, which, besides being human, are subsequent thereto. The first act of man, when he looked around and saw himself a creature which he did not make, and a world furnished for his reception, must have been devotion; and devotion must ever continue sacred to every individual man, as it appears, right to him; and governments do mischief by interfering. “

Although a professed deist, Paine often made recourse to his early Christian education. This included the influences from his Quaker father. He was attracted to religious dissenters going all the way back to his time in England when he lived in a town that was a major center of religious dissent during the English Civil War. Once in America, he found alliances with radical Free Quakers.

With Quaker constitutionalism, the state of nature for humanity is not anarchy. The people isn’t a product of government for it precedes and is a prerequisite for government. Humans are social creatures. For Quakers, this was expressed as a covenant with God, the essence and inspiration of constitutionalism. They believed in a living constitution for they believed in a God alive in the hearts of men (and women). This is also why they didn’t believe in natural law, an unchanging set of divine legal rights set down for all of eternity. Instead, a people’s covenant with God changed as their relationship to God grew and developed.

As explained by Jane E. Calvert in Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson (Kindle Locations 10068-10077):

“The mechanism by which change could happen – whether in the case of Pennsylvania or America – was premised on the idea that the people were already constituted regardless of what paper documents did or did not exist, and that the power to discern the law lay with the people as a body. Samuel Beer explains, however, that Western political thought had historically rejected popular rule in favor of hierarchy. “Classical philosophy had taught the rule of the wise,” he says, “Christianity taught the rule of the holy.”104 The latter was also true of Quaker political thought. The crucial difference was that, in the Quaker view, all could be holy. Divine competence was in the people. They had what Beer calls a “constituent sovereignty”; that is, when a government dissolves and must be renewed, the people do not return to a state of nature, a state of anarchy.105 Rather, the power that they invested in the law-making body reverts to them and they can recreate – reconstitute – their political arrangements.”

This wasn’t a radical idea for Quakers. It was their tradition and so part of their established order. Quaker constitutionalism was at the heart of the political experiment in Pennsylvania. John Dickinson, a Quaker-raised Pennsylvanian, shared Paine’s Quaker-inspired constitutionalism even as he didn’t share Paine’s radicalism. Quite the opposite, Dickinson sought to defend the social order that had protected religious minorities like the Quakers. This was his motivation for using Quaker values in writing the original draft of the Articles of Confederation.

Quakers were not supporters of Lockean social contract theory. Just as they were not supporters of Lockean natural rights. Burke’s criticisms do not apply to Quakers or those who base their views on Quaker political values and traditions. Burke acted as if Quaker constitutionalism didn’t exist, as if there were no other options besides civil law and anarchy. Ellis shows a similar disregard toward or ignorance about the Quaker position.

* * * *

I’m not just arguing about history. This is relevant for the public debate about government that has been ongoing for centuries now.

Quakers weren’t and still aren’t individualists. They take seriously the idea of “the people” as a community, not just an aggregate of individuals. This Quaker view has come to have major impact on progressivism. Quaker constitutionalism is probably also behind the liberal view of a living constitution, a covenant of a people that is greater than mere words and legalese.

To seek out first principles is to seek out the living “Breath of God” behind the words. Worshipping the words of long dead men isn’t something the Anti-Federalists had hoped for. Jefferson thought there should be a new constitution every generation, which is to say about every 20 years. The Anti-Federalists believed that government was for the living since only the living could consent to being governed. Making the US Constitution into a dogma written in stone like a modern Ten Commandments is to entirely miss the point.

The Spirit of ’76 is a living spirit. Where it lives is in the heart of those who still believe in the inspiration of the American Revolution. Constitutions come and go. Compromises are made and governing systems eventually fail. But the quest for a more perfect union is a neverending quest.

We should respect the Articles of Confederation for the reason that it was the first expression of a new vision of society. It was a radical vision then and it remains a radical vision to this day. The American Revolution never ended for the original American experiment has yet to fully begin.

* * * *

After sleeping on it, one more thought came to mind.

The Lockean influence on the American Revolution isn’t absolute. The one thing that has become clear to me is that the colonies represented diverse influences right from the start (see David Hackett Fischer and Colin Woodard for detailed analysis). This doesn’t just apply to radicals like Paine or forgotten figures like Dickinson, but also founders like Jefferson.

A number of scholars have questioned Thomas Jefferson’s relation to Lockean natural rights. It is far from certain that Jefferson, in writing the Declaration of Independence, was referring to Locke when he wrote about “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Locke’s own formula included “life, liberty and estate”. There is a vast difference depending upon what the final emphasis is placed, estate or pursuit of Happiness. That is “Happiness” with a capital “H”, in case a mere lowercase wasn’t emphasis enough.

In previously discussing this, I concluded that,

As for Jefferson’s personal view, a fundamental right related to happiness had to do with consent. A government earned consent by ensuring the happiness of citizens. When that happiness abated, so did the requirement of consent. This puts “pursuit of Happiness” in a whole other context.

The Constitution certainly didn’t require the people’s consent, much less happiness. As far as that goes, the Constitution makes only one mention of property and that in referring to public property. Commerce gets discussed twice, but only in stating its being regulated. This is hardly a document of laissez-faire capitalism. This is made clear by the early use of tariffs made by the federal government, “the main source of all Federal revenue from 1790 to 1914″. Tariffs made markets heavily regulated, some might say manipulated even.

The Articles of Confederation did speak of property while even going so far as putting it into context of trade and commerce. However, the preceding Declaration of Independence didn’t mention property (or estate) at all and yet mentioned happiness twice. The second mention of Happiness placed it in relation to Safety. This is something Quakers of the time would have approved of as they knew through direct experience the relation between freedom for minorities and protection of minorities. As minorities, many Quakers resisted severing their ties with the protection offered by the Crown and Quakers like Dickinson hoped to quickly reestablish protections with a government powerful enough to enforce them.

There were many contested understandings for all these terms. Liberty, in particular, always was a vague term with its origins in Roman slave society. As I’ve mentioned before, Jefferson’s Virginia was shaped by the Cavalier heritage of Roman values. The Declaration and the Constitution refer to liberty and freedom, often seemingly interchangeably, sometimes using freedom as the opposite of enslaved which is the Roman conception of liberty. Quite uniquely, the Articles use freedom as a touchstone while never mentioning liberty even once. That demonstrates a major difference, the Declaration having been written by a slave-owning, liberty-loving aristocrat from Cavalier Virginia and the Articles having been written by a Quaker-raised Pennsylvanian who freed the slaves he inherited.

Governing charters are written with words. Words like freedom and liberty aren’t mere abstractions. They are grounded in entire worldviews, cultures, and social orders. Without understanding this deeper context, we lack the key to unlock the meaning of old debates that underpin our entire society. We are a conflicted people for we debate without understanding the terms of the debate. Rhetoric, too often empty, takes the place of meaning.

The ideal of federalism was borne out of the original Confederation. The so-called Federalists who turned against the Confederation weren’t actually promoting federalism, but instead some form of nation-state or even proto-imperialism. The relationship the US government has to the states is not much different from the relationship the British Empire had to its colonies. Every government claims to represent its citizens, but representation in a practical sense is a very different thing. Just ask those early Americans when, following the Revolution, still only a few percentage were given the right to vote.

Many of the Anti-Federalists argued that they were the true Federalists. The evidence is strongly in their favor. If we wish to continue to believe our government’s propaganda about Federalism, maybe we should take it seriously enough to live up to those claims and demand our government to apply. Maybe we should once again act as if it mattered whether or not we consent to be governed.

The debate is far from over. Let’s make sure it is an informed debate.

 

We Need a Miracle

I’m going to summarize two central points about the revolutionary era. I suspect they apply to revolutions in general. There is a dynamic to what causes revolutions and how they result. There are also types of people who tend to play particular roles with predictable responses. I’ll connect these ideas and maybe clarify what this all might mean, for societies and for human nature.

* * *

The first point is an insight I had after reading a few dozen different books. I originally was reading about Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. That led me to seek a broader perspective which eventually brought me to the debate between the Federalists and anti-Federalists.

What I realized was that the debate between Burke and Paine was essentially the same debate between the Federalists and anti-Federalists. That is quite revealing. It puts everything into a different perspective. The arguments against the American Revolution beforehand were often exactly the same arguments made for the new Federalist government. Sometimes the same people made the same arguments before and after the Revolution.

John Dickinson, for similar stated reasons as Burke, argued against the Revolution and for the unwritten English Constitution and the rights of Englishmen. Both Dickinson and Burke warned of the dangers of revolution. The most interesting part is that it was that type of person who specifically warned the Revolution likely would fail, unleashing destruction instead of renewal, and it was that type of person who did their best to ensure the Revolution failed or rather ensure whatever success it achieved was short-lived. Dickinson was essentially still fighting against the Revolution even after it had happened. He wasn’t a bad guy and I don’t know that he was entirely wrong; actually, I suspect he was partly right which is a feeling I can’t shake.

Federalism was a counter-revolution that fought against the very ideals that offered the only justification for the American Revolution in the first place. If the new Federalism was justified, the American Revolution wasn’t justified. But if the American Revolution wasn’t justified, it should never have happened and the new Federal government shouldn’t have been formed. The basic justifications for the new Federal government, after all, were the same basic justifications given for defending the British Empire. So, it would have made more sense, like Canada, to have remained part of the British Empire. There are some differences between the US political system and British political system as they diverged over their respective histories, but for the most part they aren’t revolutionary-worthy differences.

* * *

That brings me to my second point. Revolutions always seem to fail according to their own ideals. Either they become new forms of oppression or else something akin to the old form of oppression. Is there any way for a revolution to succeed? This bothers me because the question of revolutionary success is tied up with whether genuine justice can ever be achieved. Is there a different way to go about revolution besides the hope of redemptive violence?

I wonder what a successful revolution would look like.

A revolution, in many ways, is a failure right from the start. First and foremost, it is a failure of the old order. Even the likes of Burke and Dickinson saw the failures of the old order. That is why they promoted reform which was rooted in their desire to prevent revolution. If their hoped for reform hadn’t failed, there wouldn’t have been a revolution. But there is a corollary to that. If the revolution hadn’t happened, the needed reforms may never have happened in British Empire and her former colonies. So, the reform’s failure was the cause of the revolution and the revolution’s failure was what finally forced some reform. Burke, however, wanted to believe that reform was still possible without revolution pounding at the door; but his faith remains unproven.

A revolution is always unreasonable according to the old order. There is always an element of the unproven and unpredictable about any revolution. Because of this, Burke had good reasons to fear revolution. But such reasonableness ultimately always fails. If social orders were capable of continuous reform, no revolution would ever happen. Yet it is because social orders resist reform that revolutions are necessary and inevitable, even in their repeated failure.

It seems that civilization as we know it isn’t possible without semi-regularly scheduled revolutions. And, considering the failures of reform in our present society, it seems some revolution in the US is overdue. Of course, revolution could be easily prevented by some thorough reforms, but that is precisely what those in power don’t want to do, just as the ruling elite during Burke’s life didn’t want admit to the need of reform. I must admit that I feel wary about any new revolution. I see no reason that it will succeed any more than previous revolutions. Still, if it takes a revolution to force reform, then revolution is what we will have, no matter who does or doesn’t want it.

* * *

Now, this brings me to the deeper issues underlying all of this.

Why does this seem so predictable, almost deterministic? Is it something inborn within our human nature?

We just go on playing the same roles in the same script. This brings us to the etymology of ‘revolution’: from the Latin revolutio, “a turn around”. We just turn around and around and around, like the ancient philosophy of the wheel of fortune. But like a wheel, there is forward motion. It’s just going in circles we lose track of where we are heading and we’re never quite sure it is the direction we want to end up in.

Is the world genuinely better now than in the past? In some ways, yes. In other ways, no. What does it all add up to?

Take a concrete example. Let’s go with African-American civil rights across the centuries.

Racialized slavery was bad and no one can doubt that the abolition of it was a good thing, and it did require a civil war close to revolution to achieve it, even if the abolition was more a side effect of other societal changes. Before the Civil War, there was over a couple of million of African-Americans enslaved. Presently, there are around a million African-Americans imprisoned (not to count the many more than that number caught up in the ‘justice’ system or suffering under the oppressive conditions of the life of an ex-con). That is some improvement. We’ve reduced by about half of the African-Americans who are unjustly trapped in an oppressive system.

Even so, that is rather pathetic as a case for reform. A (conservative? moderate? failed?) revolution, a civil war, and a civil rights movement and that is all you get for it. Really? The ironic part is that slavery still exists in much of the world, maybe even growing. There might be more slaves today than there was in centuries past for the simple reason that the population is now larger (I’ve heard people make such claims, but I don’t know how slaves are counted when they are sold on black markets and usually kept hidden). Much of these present slave conditions are part of modern capitalism (just as early racialized slavery was part of the rise of early capitalism). We Americans buy products every day made by people who work under threat of violence, sometimes locked or chained to prevent escape. There has been much reporting about the work conditions in certain Chinese factories and that is only what gets reported.

The world improves in many ways. Yet it is hard to say it is actually better overall. It definitely is better if you are an upper class person in a developed country, but that is a minority of the world’s population. As we slowly reform old injustices, new injustices crop up in their place.

It can feel like we are stuck in a cycle. The problem with reform is that it leaves in place the social order that caused the problems in the first place. To build on a proven dysfunctional social order seems less than optimal. Is there something that could bring forth something entirely new, like nothing that ever came before? Are we humans capable of such large-scale ingenuity? Or for that matter are we capable of even reform that would permanently undo injustice and ensure a new injustice doesn’t take its place?

An important insight is made by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow. From slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, racialized oppression never ends. It just takes new forms. Reform only deals with the symptoms instead of the disease. Symptom relief is fine for a dying patient. But what if one doesn’t want to resign oneself to the cynical view that our civilization is doomed and all that we can seek is a bit of comfort on the way down? What about hope for recovery, for a full healing?

What we need is a non-violent, democratic revolution. A transformation that is a paradigm shift across the entire population. We so desperately need for a change to happen that is greater than our own ability to envision change, a change that shifts our ability to envision new possibilities, an envisioning that is simultaneously an enactment. The means have to match the ends. We have to somehow collectively act in a way as if the change already happened.

Basically, we need a miracle.

* * *

As a bonus, I’ll leave you with a recent blog post from The (Dis)Loyal Opposition To Modernity:

The anti-primitive by El Mono Liso