Origins Of The United States of America, Myth Vs. Reality
Prior to 1776, there were colonial Governors, legislatures, counties, chartered cities, townships and boroughs. Elected officials commonly levied taxes for public works. There also were local courts, intermediate courts and courts to hear appeals, if necessary, all the way to the Privy Council in England. Most of these structures continue to exist unaltered to this very day. They were all adopted from Great Britain and before the revolution were under British control. Colonists considered themselves Englishmen, and expected the same rights as those living on the other side of the Atlantic. While England provided no protection to the colonists, it did occasionally drag us into wars with other European powers.
For most of the colonial period the American Colonies paid no tax to Britain, but they also had no representation in Parliament. It wasn’t until England began levying taxes and establishing trade restrictions that the colonists began shouting: “No Taxation without Representation.” After signing the Declaration of Independence, the thirteen colonies became independent sovereign states. They realized that independently they could never defeat Great Britain, the most powerful nation on earth. However, if they joined together as one entity, there was a chance they could drive British soldiers off their continent and gain true independence.
What the colonists actually created was little more than an umbrella organization that they called the United States of America. After winning the Revolutionary war, they set about the task of creating an operating agreement to establish a basic legal structure and a central government which could coordinate trade and administer domestic and international affairs; and importantly, one to which all the states could agree. Therefore, they called a Constitutional Convention and sent their best and brightest to Philadelphia. As could be expected, disagreements erupted and compromises had to be made; but in the end they were successful and the Constitution of the United States was born.
The powers granted to this new organization were expressly limited to those contained in the agreement. The ultimate power rested not with the central government, but with the states who organized the new entity. Though never used, an important aspect of this power still exists: the calling of a constitutional convention by state governments.
The framers of the Constitution hated the totalitarian tendencies of monarchs, but were also terrified of a direct democracy which could decay into mob rule. Influenced by Montesquieu, they believed that liberty is very fragile and therefore the people should not give too much power to any one branch of government. Therefore, unlike Britain’s parliamentary system, the chief executive was separated from the legislative branch. And not wishing to give too much power to the people, they established that only half of the legislative branch, the House of Representatives, would be popularly elected and that incumbents had to face re-election after only two years.
The Constitution established that the United States Senate would be made up of individuals who were selected by their respective state legislatures, two per state. This was to assure that the federal government’s legislative branch would be responsive to the interests of the states. It was primarily driven by Anti-federalists who feared that the federal government would consume an inordinate amount of power at the expense of the states. It wasn’t until a Constitutional Amendment was passed in 1913 that senators were popularly elected. This amendment, though well intentioned, contributed to the inordinate power of today’s federal government, and in my opinion should be repealed.
And finally, it was not the framers’ intention that the President would be popularly elected, or even that the electors would be popularly chosen. It was originally intended that a group of distinguished men from each state would make up the Electoral College and that the states would be allowed to determine their own methods of selection. This was one more way that the states could maintain a high degree of control over the new central government. The Constitution has never been amended to change the system; instead, the political parties have hijacked the process so that now electors are nothing more than party hacks who are obligated to vote for the candidate selected to represent his or her political party. In reality, the nation created by our founding fathers was not as democratic as most people think.
There was no universal suffrage back in the Eighteenth Century. Only white men who owned property and met certain religious qualification were allowed to vote. Woodrow Wilson estimated that in the early days of the republic that out of about 4 million inhabitants, only 120,000 had the right to vote! (In addition to being elected the 28th. President of the United States, Wilson also held a PhD in Political Science and served as President of Princeton University.) It wasn’t until after the Civil War that African-Americans were allowed to vote and it wasn’t until 1920 that women were given the same right.
It appears that Thomas Jefferson relied heavily on John Locke’s famous Inalienable Rights Theory to justify separation from England; in other words, the rights to life, liberty, property and the right to rebel against an unjust government. However, the United States Constitution is more Aristotelian, believing that political power should not rest with either the wealthy, as in an oligarchy, or the masses, as in a democracy, but with those who are the most virtuous or deserving. What Aristotle advocated was closer to meritocracy than his namesake: “aristocracy”. Today we associate the word aristocrat to be a person of nobility by birth, but not necessarily by character.
How about the Bill of Rights, which guarantees freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms? It only took seven years for the federal government to pass the Aliens and Seditions Act, where critics of the President were prosecuted under federal law and in the name of national security. (At the time there was fear that the Jacobin philosophy would spread to America. The Jacobin’s instigated the French Revolution and there was a brewing war between the U.S. and France.) As it turns out, the Bill of Rights had nothing to do with “Freedom,” but over state vs. federal power. The First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….” It says nothing about each state’s ability to establish a church or prosecute offenders that criticized the government. Thomas Jefferson, who is thought to be a champion of free speech, was happy to watch members of the press be prosecuted under state law for libeling the President, who was Jefferson himself. In reality, he was more a champion of state’s rights than of free speech and it was for that reason alone that he opposed the Aliens and Seditions Act. Likewise, prior to the Fourteenth Amendment, the states had the constitutional authority to pass laws limiting the civilian ownership of firearms, but not the federal government. The Fourteenth Amendment forced the states to extend all the rights under the Constitution to every United States’ citizen. State law, for the first time was subservient to federal law.
Further, there was no mention of equality in the United States Constitution. There was no real equality under the law until 1868 when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted. And even then, as recent as 1971 courts interpreted the Equal Protection Clause to benefit only African-Americans. The clause was certainly not extended (by any of the three branches of government) to 110,000 Japanese-American citizens who were interned in concentration camps during World War II without any legal due process!
Liberty vs. Democracy
Let’s take a look at some common misconceptions. For example: liberty is not synonymous with democracy. Democratic Majoritarianism can lead to tyranny by the majority unless a strong constitution is in place to protect the fundamental rights of all citizens, including minorities. Conversely, Minoritarianism is a system of government that gives primacy to specific minorities that are especially well organized; control great wealth; or have control of the military or media outlets. In constitutional republics like the United States, governments can give the outward appearance of representing the interests of all citizens equally, but actually give primacy to vocal and/or well-financed individuals, corporations, organizations, and even sovereign nations at the expense of its own citizens. In some instances, these minority groups funnel vast amounts of money into the campaign funds of elected officials to buy influence and accrue financial benefits. In a Totalitarian Democracy, lawfully elected representatives (and their bureaucrats) retain substantive power over the government, while its citizens, though granted the right to vote, have little or no participation in the decision-making process of their government.
It is interesting to note that both Hitler and Mussolini rose to power in modern European countries with democratic processes. In both cases, armed thugs guarded access to the assembly halls and then watched the votes of elected officials. Their presence made it clear that any vote cast contrary to the wishes of Hitler or Mussolini would have dire consequences.
Our founding fathers understood that there can be many forms of tyranny, which led to the separation of powers between the major branches of government. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams makes this point very succinctly: “(t)he fundamental Article of my political Creed is, that Despotism, or unlimited Sovereignty, or absolute Power is the same in a Majority of a popular Assembly, an Aristocratic Counsel, an Oligarchical Junto and a single Emperor. Equally arbitrary cruel bloody and in every respect diabolical.”
The founding fathers did create a remarkable and enduring document; however, after twenty-seven amendments and countless Supreme Court decisions, today’s federal government would be almost unrecognizable to these great men. They believed that adequate protections had been built into the fabric of the new central government. These protections were: three independent branches of government; a legislative body that was partly responsive to the people and partly responsible to the states; and a chief executive who was chosen by the states. Power was not centralized but dispersed between the needs of the several states, with consideration given to small and large states alike. Today, state power has been almost entirely consumed by federal power. The presidential selection process is based on a popular election, but controlled by the two major political parties. It is a system where the popularly elected candidate does not necessarily win, as in the presidential races of 2000 and 2016. And even after 224 years, there are gaping holes in the framework of the federal government that need to be filled. Let’s look at a few examples:
· There is no limit to the amount of money that Congress may spend.
· There is no limit to the amount of debt that Congress can accumulate on behalf of the American people.
· There is no limit to the amount that Congress can tax. (The top tax rate during World War II was 94%. If that wasn’t high enough, Roosevelt unsuccessfully pushed for a 100% tax rate on incomes over $25,000).
· And there is no limit to the power of the Supreme Court.