Where Liberty and Freedom Converge

Liberty has been on my mind, because of a book I’m reading, Beyond Liberty Alone by Howard Schwartz. I’m in the middle of the book at present. I wrote some preliminary thoughts in response. One thing is clear at this point. He has an atypical view of “liberty” (Kindle Locations 433-436):

There is something incredibly profound about this insight that liberty implies limitation and not just protection or privilege. This restrictive side of liberty is often overlooked, because the word “liberty” itself tends to be associated with the word “freedom.” Yet “liberty,” as is now evident, implies something more complex. It refers to both freedom and restriction, or, to put it another way, liberty refers to the freedoms that are made possible by living together under restrictions.

This is the second book by him that I’ve read. The earlier book is Liberty In America’s Founding Moment. I haven’t finished that book either, but I’ve been going back to it from time to time. In that book, he had his academic hat on. He was originally a religious studies professor, which gives him a grounding in dealing with historical texts and contexts.

His newer book feels more personal, although the notes in the back of the book show how thorough is his thought process. He says that Beyond Liberty Alone is a book he worked on for a long time. It is part of his own development as an individual, specifically in his career. The story of how he left academia is telling (Howard’s End by Jonathan Mahler):

A few days before Howard Eilberg-Schwartz was scheduled to launch the Jewish studies program at San Franisco State University, he was persuaded by the school’s director of human resources to attend an all-day seminar for select faculty members, students, and local Jewish leaders. It was to be Eilberg-Schwartz’s introduction to the school’s Jewish community, and, understandably, he was nervous. As part of the program, participants were asked to respond to a series of provocative questions by moving to a designated area of the room. When the question “How central is Israel to Judaism?” was posed, he self-consciously took a spot among the smallish group that answered “Not terribly.” And when attendees were asked if they thought the statement “Zionism is racism” was anti-semitic, Eilberg-Schwartz — who sees the movement to create a Jewish state within the broad context of European colonialism — shuffled over toward the corner designated “No.” This time he stood virtually alone.

“I remember people coming up to me afterwards and saying how disappointed they were that I had been named head of Jewish studies,” Eilberg-Schwartz realls now, more than two years later. “That’s when I knew i wasn’t in sync with the local Jewish community. From that moment on, I was branded.”

Indeed, that fateful morning in the summer of 1994 would set the stage for a year of conflict between Eilberg-Schwartz and the local Jewish community, one that would culminate in his preipitious departure from the university — and academia altogether — in the fall of 1995.

This offers some insight why liberty is a personal issue to him. He obviously is an advocate of liberty of conscience and liberty of free speech. He was willing to stand up for what he considered right, despite the very real costs.

I’ve interacted with Schwartz some this past year, including a recent discussion on his Facebook page. I was following his blog for quite a while and would comment there. I had forgotten that he was an author and that I owned one of his books, as I own more books than my memory can keep track of. He reminded me that I had written a comment to an Amazon review of his first book on liberty, a comment that I didn’t remember, as I leave more comments than my memory can keep track of. (There are many issues with my memory.)

It is an enjoyable experience to read a book while also interacting with the author. I did that while reading Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, as he has an interesting blog as well. Corey Robin is one of the many authors that complement Schwartz’s writings. It is Robin who can help explain why the political right has its limited view of liberty, whereas Schwartz in his new book dissects that limited view and offers an alternative.

The alternative view presented by Schwartz has to do with a balance of values, a balance of rights and responsibilities. He is making an argument grounded both in common sense and in the nuanced understanding of the founding generation of American thinkers and leaders. He demonstrates how shallow and downright dysfunctional is the view of liberty on the right side of the spectrum, what he calls the liberty-first position. That right-wing view has come to prominence in recent decades, but it fails on many accounts, including its lack of principled application. More importantly, in their ideological dogmatism, liberty-first advocates ignore basic facts of human nature and human society.

In reading Beyond Liberty Alone, I became curious about what the author might have to say about the commons. As I had the Kindle version, I did a search for the term and found some references to it. He only directly speaks of the commons in one paragraph and a note to that paragraph. Here is the relevant part of the paragraph (Kindle Locations 4190-4193):

The way to address this problem is to seriously treat the ocean, water, air, and wildlife as property in common, in the sense that we are all tenants in common. Tenants in common does not mean it is a free -for-all, which is the supposition of the so-called “tragedy of the commons.” 45 There can be ownership in common and regulations about the use of the commons.

And here is the note (Kindle Locations 5579-5585):

45 . I take this to be one of the original points of Garrett James Hardin in his original essay on “The Tragedy of the Commons,” and one point I agree with. In my reading of Hardin’s original essay, his point is that the commons becomes a tragedy only if it is not regulated and that regulation is needed to protect it. One example he gives is the national parks, which are owned in common (public property) but must be regulated to protect them. His point is that without regulation, things cannot be owned in common successfully. It is beyond the present context to discuss the extensive subsequent scholarship and popular discussion of whether the commons always ends in tragedy or not, and I do not agree with some of Hardin’s subsequent moral conclusions, such as his moral conclusions about preventing immigration in his metaphor of “Living on a Lifeboat.”

Even though his direct mention of the “commons” is limited to this, he writes extensively about that which is held in common and that which offers common usage and benefit. The word “common” comes up a lot in the text. Much of this talk is about social capital, although he doesn’t use that term at all. He does talk about externalities quite a bit, which is about the cost to the commons or the costs held in common, although in reality it is usually the poor and minorities who bear the brunt of those costs.

Schwartz makes a strong argument for the commons, not just as natural resources, but as the entire inheritance of the human species. He makes it clear how much society invests in every individual and how this implies a responsibility of the individual toward society. It is overwhelming all that we take for granted. Everyone of us is the product of immense resources and opportunities given to us. We earned and deserved none of it, except as our shared inheritance in having been born.

In thinking of the commons, my mind always wanders to Thomas Paine. He came of age during the time when the land enclosure movement was having a major impact in England. It was the ending of the last vestiges of feudalism and in its wake it left a mass population of landless peasants. A peasant without the commons to live on is a very desperate person. The population of the unemployed and homeless grew as the commons were privatized or, from the perspective of the commoners, stolen.

This impoverished population flooded into London. Food riots followed. So did the early organizing of labor unions, which happened around the time Paine was in London. The lower classes became concentrated in numbers never before seen and London was where all the action was. The poor weren’t just desperate, for they were also feeling optimistic about new opportunities. Even though they were banned from the universities, the poor took what spare money they had and hired lecturers to teach them about various subjects. Paine joined in this new movement of education and it would set him on his path. He got a taste for the power of learning, the potential in reading and writing.

Paine knew about the commons and what the loss of the commons meant for most people. You can hear the echoes of the commons in some of his later writings. In “Agrarian Justice”, Paine gives a good definition of the commons:

It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural, cultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life proprietor with rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal.

He further on emphasizes the significance of public land being made private:

I have already established the principle, namely, that the earth, in its natural uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race; that in that state, every person would have been born to property; and that the system of landed property, by its inseparable connection with cultivation, and with what is called civilized life, has absorbed the property of all those whom it dispossessed, without providing, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss.

The argument Paine makes is for a land tax that would have funded an early version of Social Security. The privatizing of land was a direct causal factor for impoverishing those forced into a landless condition. The public should be compensated for what was taken from the public:

I have made the calculations stated in this plan, upon what is called personal, as well as upon landed property. The reason for making it upon land is already explained; and the reason for taking personal property into the calculation is equally well founded though on a different principle. Land, as before said, is the free gift of the Creator in common to the human race. Personal property is the effect of society; and it is as impossible for an individual to acquire personal property without the aid of society, as it is for him to make land originally.

This is the basic framework also being used by Schwartz to make his own argument. The difference is that Schwartz has a wider focus on what is held in common, but in essence he is carrying forward Paine’s vision of America. However, he doesn’t mention Paine at all in his most recent book and only makes brief mentions of Paine in his other book on liberty. In neither book does he mention “Agrarian Justice”. So, it seems that Schwartz came to this view independent of Paine’s writings.

When thinking of Paine, I then also think of John Dickinson. Both were raised with Quaker influence, although neither became Quakers. Still, they each maintained close ties to Quakers, specifically in Pennsylvania. Dickinson had ties to the Quaker elite and Paine had ties to the radical Free Quakers. They shared a commitment to Quaker-influenced abolitionism (Dickinson having gone so far as to free the slaves he inherited). Most interestingly, these two great thinkers were also the greatest and most inspiring of the revolutionary pamphleteers. Their Quaker-tinged visions helped shape two separate traditions of political philosophy, Federalism and Anti-Federalism, Dickinson and Paine respectively. These were two major voices in the early debates about liberty and rights.

Schwartz does have a fair amount to say about Dickinson. The main purpose that Dickinson serves is as a foil to Thomas Jefferson. Throughout Liberty In America’s Founding Moment, Dickinson is brought up mostly in reference to Jefferson, as they had two competing views of rights (Kindle Locations 3954-3967):

To summarize, we have seen that within a year of Jefferson’s writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson and Dickinson offer their congressional colleagues two different versions of American rights. Neither of these versions of rights is what would be called a classical natural rights theory, like that adopted by the First Continental Congress and put forward by thinkers like James Wilson. Jefferson is still avoiding natural rights language and putting emphasis on the emigration of the ancestors as a justification for American rights. When he does allude to a broader conception of rights, which is buried in the body of his essay, he alludes to the “sacred deposit” provided by God and makes no allusion to reason or rights of nature. Dickinson’s language moves much closer to the natural rights tradition, though he evokes the religious and theological subtradition that places emphasis on God’s role in founding liberty. But Dickinson also appeals to common sense and reverence for the creator as justifications and foundation for liberty. It is arguable that Congress preferred Dickinson’s version not simply because it toned down the view of the colonies as “independent” entities, but also because it provided a broader justification of rights than did Jefferson’s, one closer to the Bill of Rights for which they had already fought so hard to achieve consensus in September 1774.

In any case, the point here is that while others were appealing to a classic version of a natural rights philosophy, Jefferson himself had not abandoned his argument based on emigration. Once again, Jefferson’s view was essentially rejected. Instead, the Congress endorsed a quasi-religious statement of rights, influenced by the natural rights thinking to be sure, but not quite Lockean in the way that some American writers including the First Congress would have articulated it.

It should be noted that Jefferson and Paine were close friends and political allies. They influenced each other’s thinking on many issues. To speak of the ideas of one is to speak of the ideas of the other. So, even though Schwartz speaks so little of Paine, he indirectly invokes Paine every time he mentions Jefferson. For example, the emigration view of rights fits into arguments Paine made. As he wrote in “Common Sense,” it was simply “absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island,” especially when “Not one third of the inhabitants, even of this province, [Pennsylvania], are of English descent.”

As such, the contrasts and conflicts between Dickinson and Jefferson were also those between Dickinson and Paine. More specifically, this is also about the Quaker elite that governed Pennsylvania and those who sought to challenge that power. But this was also about the Quakers larger history and the traditions that developed from that.

Schwartz, in Liberty In America’s Founding Moment, dedicates an entire section of several pages to Dickinson’s views, “John Dickinson and the Avoidance of Natural Rights Arguments”. I want to tackle this section because there is a context missing that would add greatly to the analysis.

That missing context is of the Quakers. In neither book does he mention the Quakers. He also makes no mention of the Middle Colonies, at least not in those terms. The Middle Colonies had a different place and played a different role in the colonial scheme of the British territory in America, different that is from New England and the South, as I previously explained (The Root and Rot of the Tree of Liberty):

The Middle Colonies in general were what held together British Power on this side of the pond. This is why, during the French and Indian War, the British government spent so much money and effort defending the Middle Colonies. It is maybe understandable that those up in New England didn’t appreciate why they were paying higher taxes for the defense of the colonies when their region was never the focal point of that defense. Those New Englanders couldn’t appreciate that the defense of the Middle Colonies was the defense of all the colonies. They also couldn’t appreciate what it felt like to be in the Middle Colonies which had been the target of foreign empires.

Those in the Middle Colonies fully appreciated this which is why they were so reluctant to revolt. Plus, the Middle Colonies were filled with non-Englishmen who had no history with the British government and monarchy, no history of the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution. Even the Englishmen of the Middle Colonies who did have such history nonetheless had a very different view of it. I speak of the Quakers who had in some ways been given the greatest freedom for self-governance. The Monarchy was at times a better friend to the Quakers than their fellow colonial elites ever had been.

This is the world that Dickinson was born into. It was also the place that Paine. like Franklin before him, would adopt as his home. To understand Pennsylvania is to understand Dickinson and to understand why he came into conflict with the likes of Paine (and Franklin). The Quakers always found themselves in a precarious position, both back in England and in the colonies. Having experienced persecution and oppression as religious dissenters, they came to highly prize security and moderation, which they saw as the foundation of any genuine freedom.

I point to the word ‘freedom’ in contradistinction to ‘liberty’, the latter being the focus of Schwartz’s writings. This is important, as I noted in another post of mine (The Radicalism of The Articles of Confederation):

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.

As far as I know, Schwartz does not explore the origins of these terms. He discusses Dickinson without pointing out that word ‘liberty’ was not included in the Articles, the original constitution. That seems like a key detail to my mind. It signifies the importance of Quakerism to Dickinson. It was freedom, not liberty, that was the core value to be defended. The argument Schwartz makes, in Beyond Liberty Alone, by broadening liberty to include responsibility is actually more resonant with the Quaker worldview of freedom. It is interesting that he comes to this understanding, despite his primary focus on Jefferson.

In the specific section on Dickinson, Schwartz writes (Liberty In America’s Founding Moment, Kindle Locations 2352-2355),

Is it everywhere assumed or is Dickinson hedging his bets and avoiding the question of government’s origin and the validity of the social contract? That seems possible especially given Dickinson’s appeal to the ideas of philosopher David Hume in the above citation. Hume was a critic of Lockean natural rights theory and argued that Locke’s natural rights arguments were as much a political ideology as the divine right theory that justified kingship.

This is where knowing Dickinson’s Quaker background would have offered insight. Dickinson didn’t need Hume’s writings to be critical of natural rights. Quaker tradition itself was based on a mistrust of natural rights, and so this probably is the more fundamental influence. Hume’s ideas simply corresponded with the worldview Dickinson was raised in. Also, Hume’s criticisms of natural rights allowed for a non-religious formulation of that aspect of the Quaker tradition. Quakers had no use of Lockean social contracts and so that wasn’t an issue for Dickinson. Quaker constitutionalism was based on the belief in a personal relationship to God, a divine spark that existed within (see a fuller discussion in my post The Radicalism of The Articles of Confederation, in which I note that the historian Joseph Ellis also seems unaware of the Quaker position). A constitution was, as Quaker-influenced Paine described, “a compact between God and man” (from a footnote to Observations on the Declaration of Rights).

Let me continue with some more of Schwartz commentary from the section on Dickinson (Kindle Locations 2369-2384):

The only time that Dickinson offers a justification of colonial rights is when he quotes the resolves of the Stamp Act Congress, which he had earlier drafted but which avoided the use of natural rights. Quoting the third resolve of the Stamp Act Congress, and referring to these resolves as the “American Bill of Rights,” this is as close as Dickinson gets to offering a philosophical basis of liberty.

III. “That it is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that No Tax‡ be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.”13

We have no way of knowing in these letters how Dickinson grounded “the essential freedom of a people” and “undoubted right of Englishmen.” Only on one occasion (Letter Seven) does Dickinson quote Locke: “If they have any right to tax us—then, whether our own money shall continue in our own pockets or not, depends no longer on us, but on them. ‘There is nothing which’ we ‘can call our own; or, to use the words of Mr. Locke—what property have’ we ‘in that, which another may, by right, take, when he pleases, to himself?’”14 This quote from Locke is apropos. Locke here is talking about the duty of people to support government with taxes. Locke makes clear in this passage that paying taxes must be with their consent, as defined by the vote of the majority. While Dickinson brings Locke’s authority to bear in supporting the idea that there should be “no taxation without consent,” he does not invoke Locke’s notions of social contract or natural rights.

At least at one point Dickinson seems to assume a very different source of colonial rights than his colleagues. Specifically, he assumes that the rights of the colonies were granted by Great Britain in exchange for the benefits that the colonies brought the mother country. Strikingly, Dickinson includes the right of property as a privilege conferred by Great Britain on the colonies, rather than an inherent right.

Schwartz struggles here to pinpoint exactly where Dickinson is coming from. He is able to discern bits and pieces from Dickinson’s words, but the motivating vision behind those words eludes him. Further on, Schwartz does show he realizes the importance of the religious angle, even though not specifically in the context of Quakerism (Kindle Locations 2390-2394):

It is striking that the colonial right to property is here described not as a natural right, but as a “recompense” or payback from Great Britain to America for the benefits that accrued to the mother country. The colonies’ rights were the result of a trade or contract. No one arguing strictly from natural rights directly would ground the American right of property this way. Moreover, the religious overtones in Dickinson’s essays, though not frequent, are obvious here when he invokes scripture rather than Locke or reason to prove his point.

He then clarifies the importance of religion (Kindle Locations 2399-2405):

Quoting the New Testament, Dickinson appeals to freedom as a grant from God. The absence of natural rights language or at least a fully articulated rights theory in Dickinson would seem consistent with his ongoing commitment that the colonies remain part of Great Britain. Dickinson rejects any talk of the colonies as “independent states” which are part of a larger federated empire. “But if once we are separated from our mother country, what new form of government shall we adopt, or where shall we find another Britain to supply our loss? Torn from the body, to which we are united by religion, liberty, laws, affections, relation, language and commerce, we must bleed at every vein.”18 Dickinson, as is well known, would later refuse to sign the Declaration of Independence, believing in July 1776 that there was still some hope for reconciliation between the colonies and Great Britain.

Schwartz is touching upon so much here, but he can’t quite bring it together. The Quakerism piece is missing. All of this makes sense, though, when that Quaker piece is put into place. To the Quaker worldview, a constitution is a living agreement and expression of the Divine, a covenant of a collective people as a community. It is not a piece of paper or the words on them. To be separated from their mother country was quite the challenge to that worldview. The community needed to be redefined and the covenant needed to take new form.

Jane E. Calvert, in Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson, details what this means for Dickinson and how this differs from Jefferson (Kindle Locations 9708-9742):

For Dickinson, a polity must be and, in the case of America, was constituted otherwise than merely on paper. And his understanding of how man entered political society was largely the same as the way most Americans understood it, but with subtle differences in process and emphases. While most political thinkers of the day agreed that joining society, forming a union, was “primarily a matter of reason,”13 Dickinson believed that to unite was to obey a divine command, a “sacred law.”14 Like Locke, he held that society was first occasioned “by the command of our Creator.”15 God, said Dickinson, “designed men for society, because otherwise they cannot be happy.”16 But more than that, God “demands that we should seek for happiness in his way, and not our own,” which meant joining one another on specific terms and with a particular mode of engagement.17 Moreover, reason was not man’s primary impetus for joining; the “common sense of mankind,” Dickinson explained, merely “agrees.”18 This original constitution ordained by God was prior to and independent of any written documents codifying that union. “[T]hose corner stones of liberty,” he wrote, “were not obtained by a bill of rights, or any other records, and have not been made and cannot be preserved by them.”19 Rather, ten years before Jefferson wrote that “all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” Dickinson asserted that “Rights are created in us by the decrees of Providence.”20

On the surface, Jefferson and Dickinson seem to agree, but as we have seen from our earlier discussion, Quaker thinkers did not usually speak of natural rights. While many thinkers of all persuasions, including Penn and Dickinson on occasion, conflated the languages of rights and referred interchangeably to natural or God-given rights, for Quakers, who more often spoke in terms of providence, there was ultimately a difference. If the divine and the natural were the same (an idea many Quakers rejected outright), they were much more closely related in Quaker thought than in Jefferson’s, with nature not overshadowing divinity. Dickinson clearly did not subscribe to the deist theology of other Founders. He explained that “[w]e claim [rights] from a higher source, from the King of kings, and Lord of all the earth…They are born within us; exist with us; and cannot be taken from us by any human power, without taking our lives.”21 Because they came from God rather than nature, man, or his history of established institutions, “rights must be preserved by soundness of sense and honesty of heart. Compared with these, what are a bill of rights, or any characters drawn upon parchment, those frail rememberances?”22 If this seems to us an overly fine distinction, that Dickinson made it was in keeping with Quaker thinking about rights. Such subtleties caused contemporary and historical criticism that his work consisted of “fine-spun theories and hair-splitting distinctions”23 and that he had the “Vice of Refining too much.”24 But if his thought has been misunderstood, it is because his critics did not care to understand these distinctions or the complex theories and arrangement to which they gave rise. It is mainly this difference between the natural or human and the divine that distinguished the Quaker theory of government and their process of legal discernment from others.

From my perspective, this additional insight strengthens the case Schwartz is making.

The Quakers, more than any other early Americans, embodied the balance between rights and responsibilities, between freedom and obligation. Schwartz wants to place the emphasis on the social reality. Quaker constitutionalism could have given him an alternative view to throw light on what it means to have rights in a community. Also, to return to Paine, the pamphlet “Agrarian Justice” could have given Schwartz a stronger foundation in American tradition for a progressive understanding of the commons.

When put together, all of these pieces form a greater vision of what America has been and could be. Schwartz’s writings are part of a larger conversation. No single voice can capture every aspect and nuance. What matters is the broadening of debate. It is an exciting time to add one’s voice to the chorus, even if at times it sounds more like cacophany, something the founders could sympathize with.

The historical context is important for a deeper understanding. Even so, any given fact and detail isn’t what matters most. Studying such things should serve the purpose of helping to see what was hidden, to remember what has been forgotten, to revive the senses that became numb. The disappearance of the commons is a profound loss. It isn’t just the loss of public land and their resources. As Schwartz makes clear, it is a loss of shared identity and meaning, loss of a unifying set of values. We are made small as our vision of rights narrows. We are made weaker.

When we lose the knowledge of what we lost, we lose the knowledge that something is lost. That is not a good place for a people to find themselves. It is to be lost without a map. Fortunately, those who came before us left markers for the path we are on and the paths we might take.

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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.