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.

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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.

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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.

U.S. Democracy: Defined and Discussed

Democracy.  I’m not sure I understand what it is entirely, and I’m not sure anyone does.  I sometimes even doubt that the US government is a Democracy.  In the US, Democracy has become identified with the concept of the Free Market and in the last century the Federal Government has become indistinguishable from the Military-Industrial Complex.

When Fascism was the top enemy, the prevailing mood in the US had a Socialist bent.  When Communism was the top enemy, the prevailing mood in the US switched to a faith in Capitalism.  Democracy is always trying to find the balance between Fascism and Communism, big business and big government.  In modern US Democracy, the main choice isn’t between centralized power vs localized power.  Both Republicans and Democrats are for centralized power.  The choice is whether a Federal Government has power over Mega-Corporations or else that Mega-Corporations manipulate the Federal Government to their own ends.  In reality, it’s probably both at the same time because the same people are working in both sectors.

Originally, the main choice the Founding Fathers faced was between centralized government vs localized power.  The Republicans used to be Libertarians, but Libertarianism was also mired in an agrarian capitalism based on slavery.  Many of the Founding Fathers believed that slavery needed to end.  They chose not to end it themselves because they thought the inefficiency of the system would lead the Free Market to end it with no intervention.  They were partly true (with the help of other governments illegalizing the slave trade), but there refusal to stand up for civil rights in the face of what was big business of the times meant that a couple centuries of African-Americans suffered as second-class citizens.  Despite its failings in the past, Libertarianism does seem to be needed to offer balance in US Democracy.  With the increased ability of citizens to organize locally because of technology, maybe there will be an increase in Libertarianism… but it will take a major shift before the public can loosen the grip of the Federal Government and Mega-Corporations (to simplify, they can be referred to in their singular form as the Military-Industrial Complex).

Part of my point is that Democracy isn’t limited to any one thing.  Or rather Democracy is a little bit of everything.  I suppose it fits in with the Melting Pot ideal.  The original immigrants came from many different countries and cultures, and so they had very different views about government.  By voting, supposedly the best ideas and people would rise to the top.

The reason it doesn’t actually work this way in reality is because the Founding Fathers were ultimately creating a Plutocracy rather than a Meritocracy.  American Plutocracy is essentially a limited Meritocracy that serves the wealthy and powerful.  It relates to the ideal of the Disinterested Aristocracy.  These men were supposedly the best of the best and so deserved their power.  And the corresponding idea was that the poor and powerless were obviously less worthy.

How this works is that power remains in the hands of a specific elite class by being handed down the generations within the same set of families (list of United States political families).  This is why many presidents were either of royal lineage or married to someone of royal lineage (list of United States Presidents by genealogical relationship).  This is also why Obama (the proclaimed underdog representing Afrcan-Americans) has 6 US presidents as cousins including his seeming ideological opposite Bush jr.  I’ve even heard someone recently make an argument (a very old argument I should add) that Social Darwinism is based on Genetic Darwinism.  Basically, the rich and powerful theoretically have better genetics.  The argument is that centuries of a self-imposed breeding program of inter-family alliances has breed a class of superior humans.  I know this sounds silly or even scary, but it wouldn’t surprise me if many people (in power) believe in some variation of this.  It should be kept in mind that before the US became involved in WWII, many Americans were proponents of the Nazi ideal of eugenics.  Eugenics had even been practiced in the US on a small scale for a time (through forced sterilizations).

I want to shift the focus here.  Many argue that Democracy is a bad system that just so happens to be better than all of the other possibilities.  That is a cynical response that actually resonates with me.  Maybe Democracy is good enough despite its failings.  The problem with Democracy is that any form of government can appear like a Democracy and yet only be a facade.  A Democracy could even originally have been genuine and be taken over by un-Democratic forces and few people would likely notice.  Some would argue (myself included) that this might’ve already happened here in the US.

A major criticism of Democracy is that it’s inefficient and only shows positive results (if at all) over long periods of time.  It’s hard to know if a Democracy is actually working at any given moment because all of the disagreement makes it hard for anything to get implemented.  If and when things do get implemented, they no longer even look like the original proposal and nobody is happy with it.  Socialism and Fascism are much quicker methods of creating change.  Centralized power has the benefit of getting things done often with very positive results (in the short run at least).  The trains arrive on time and whole economies can be lifted out of slumps by a single decision.  Democracy forsakes quick fixes for a long-term vision of social improvement.  The theory is that it’s better to protect the Democratic principles than to sacrifice them every time a problem arises.  Unfortunately, politicians want results because their popularity depends on results (or appearance results).  Everyone wants results… especially when people feel under pressure or under threat.  There is nothing like collective fear to inspire people to throw Democracy out the window and to give politicians leeway to take actions they would never dare to do in other situations.

Many examples can be given.  Much of the US politics in the 20th century was a constant undermining and endangering of Democracy.  It was the century when the alphabet agencies gained immense power.  The issue with these agencies (and the same for the military) is that they’re non-Democratic entities (in that they’re not a part of the voting system).  Also, it’s hard for the Democratic parts of the government (such as Congress) to provide appropriate oversight of agencies that operate through secrecy.  Often the Federal Government has their own personal reasons to ensure the alphabet agencies’ secrecy.  For example, Obama didn’t want (and didn’t want his name involved with having) certain information shared with the public because it would create a negative mood (towards his popularity and towards his political agendas).  The question is whether the CIA, military, or private contractors broke the law (national or international), but this can only be answered if there is an investigation (which Obama doesn’t want).

The problem is that Democratic civil rights and state secrecy are on complete opposite ends of the spectrum… one functions to the degree that the other doesn’t. It’s true that state secrecy is a practical necessity, but I would add that it’s also a very dangerous slippery slope and for that reason should be used sparingly.  A Democracy in order to survive has to protect itself from non-Democratic influences and sadly this means it must at times use non-Democratic methods.  For example, to fight terrorists we have to be willing to fight dirty when there is no other alternative.  However, we should never forget what we’re fighting for.  If we sacrifice our ideals and standards, then the enemy has won by causing us to become like them.

Furthermore, we have to be patient because I pointed out Democracy works best when the longterm vision is kept in mind.  We shouldn’t allow ourselves to get pulled into just reacting to the momentary situation.

To illustrate, I’ll discuss the torture issue which is specifically what motivated me to write this post.  Yes, we face dangers from terrorists, but it’s important to keep in mind that torture hasn’t saved us from any imminent threats.  By torturing, we are sacrificing our ideals and standards, and also just plain going against national and international law (or at best walking on the knife edge of legality).  Plus, as the most powerful nation in the world, our example holds great weight.  What we do gives moral justification for others to do the same.  This of course includes what others will do to US soldiers when they’re captured.  By torturing foreigners, we endanger our own soldiers (and also citizens travelling or living abroad).  If we are making such massive sacrifices, we better be sure we’re gaining some massive benefits.  So, exactly what are the benefits?  Maybe we’ve gained some intel, but it isn’t clear that we’ve gained much that is usable in and of itself.  Without traditional intelligence gathering (such as spies and informants), information gained by torture is useless because it can’t be verified.  The problem is that the US has supposedly been reducing in recent decades traditional inelligence gathering techniques.  The advantage of these latter techniques is that they don’t require us to sacrifice our ideals and standards nor do they require us to break laws nor do they require us to endanger the lives of our soldiers.

Also, if we had emphasized traditional intellgence gathering techniques in recent decades, we’d have been more prepared and might’ve even prevented the 9/11 attack in the first place.  Torturing, at best, was our agencies trying to play quick catch-up which is a very bad way of going about things.  On top of that, there was the problem of information not being shared between agencies.  That is the problem of secrecy.  Even these secretive agencies end up keeping secrets from eachother because holding secrets means holding onto power.

There are very good reasons that we have these ideals, standards and laws… other than basic morality and civil rights.  The world learned the hard way why torture is a bad thing.  During WWII, there occurred some of the most gruesome fighting, terrorism and torture the world has ever seen.  Governments realized that there needed to be rules of war because when given free reign people do very horrible things to each other.  The history of WWII makes serial killers look like child’s play.  Trust me, we don’t want to see a repeat of WWII.  International laws against torture were created for very very very good reasons.  I can’t emphasize that too much.  Enough said.

Anyways, torture is as anti-Democratic as one can get.  Leave torture to the bad guys and let’s try to retain our moral highground (whatever is left of it).  Some might ask why we should care if our enemies are tortued.  I would respond that history shows us how easily and how quickly a citizen can become an enemy of the state.  If you think it can’t happen to you, you are sadly naive.  Go study some history.

There is always an uneasy truce between violence and Democracy.  Freedom when threatened has to be defended by force.  That is how the US became a Democracy.  But that very same force can easily be turned back against Democracy.  The Founding Fathers  and Americans in general were wary of having a standing army.  After victory, the Continental Army was quickly disbanded except for two remaining regiments to guard the Western frontier and West Point’s arsenal.  What protection was needed was given by state militias.

This would’ve been fine if the country had remained small instead of expanding, but conflicts with Native Americans required re-establishing a standing army.  The standing army served the purpose of Manifest Destiny.  Our country had a vision and everyone better get out of our way.  The standing army was mostly used to establish and defend the ever expanding frontier.  But it was only a few decades after defeating our external enemies that the standing army was turned against internal enemies.  The Civil War gave the Federal government power like never before.  The Libertarian country established by the Founding Fathers was officially ended.  In it’s place, the US government started toying with the idea of international power and in a few decades the US was becoming a player in the game of international war.  We were no longer just defending our freedom but were now extending our power.  Afterall, you can’t just let your standing army sit idle.  When you have power, there is strong allure to find justification for using it.  What good is power if you don’t use it?  The Founding Fathers offered some intelligent answers to that question (here are some of Jefferson’s opinions on the subject of democratic freedom and military power).

The Founding Fathers preferred not to have standing army at all during times of peace, but they were especially against a standing army being entirely under the control of the President.  Because of this, Congress was given the sole power to declare war.  However, you may have noticed that Presidents such as Bush jr have bypassed Congressional oversight by starting wars without having them declared.  Pretty sneaky.  The purpose of Congress is to enforce oversight so this doesn’t happen, and yet Congress willingly bowed down to this usurpation of power.  This is how collective fear combined with powermongering slowly erodes away Democracy.  It’s interesting that Bush jr superficially played the traditional role of the Disinterested Aristocrat who rules by serving the greater good (idealized by the Founding Fathers) all the while gathering power to the presidency and undermining Democratic values.  The ideal of Disinterested Aristocracy (which I wrote about previously) sounds lovely and maybe worked in early America when the Federal government had very little power, but in contemporary politics it has great potential for abuse.

Democracy.  So, what exactly is it?  That is still uncertain to me.  There is a more important question to ask.  What is our Democracy becoming?  What are we collectively becoming?