Monday, March 17, 2008
The Spring of Our Discontent
We've been talking and thinking about politics around here lately.
It makes sense.
N. and I are studying the founding of the United States and the Constitution.
And it's an election season.
And then there is the economy and the way our politicians are (not) dealing with it.
And the war. Oy. This is truly a discontented spring for the American electorate.
And since we are studying the founding documents of the US--in our haphazard and conversational, unschooling way, I also have gotten interested in reading about that time in our nation's history. When I was a schoolgirl, it was the Civil War period and aftermath that really captured my imagination. After all, I grew up not 60 miles from Springfield, Illinois. It was the "Land of Lincoln." Somehow, although I had read the founding documents, and could recite the Preamble to the Constitution, my study of the first years of the United States got short shrift.
Last week, when I was browsing the new books shelf at one of our branch libraries, I found an interesting looking book: A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign by Edward J. Larson. So I picked it up, figuring that if I get nothing else from it, it would at least provide background for our conversations about our country's early history. But when I picked it up and started reading it this weekend, in between Shabbat and Purim Carnival activities, I realized that it was going to be much, much more.
It is the story of the end of a friendship. It is the story of the beginnings of partisanship in the American election process. It is the story of a fundamental controversy that has been with us since the ratification of the United States Constitution. And, although I have not finished the book, I can see already that there is much wisdom for us, the primary-weary American voters, in knowing what has gone before. And in knowing what has been survived. I am enthralled.
But this is not a book review.
I can't do a review until I finish the book.
And in between the beginnings of cleaning for Pesach, and preparing for Purim, and writing papers, there is precious little time this spring break to sneak in a few pages but for my morning and evening reading.
But my reading so far has got me thinking.
And I wanted to write a little bit about this spring of our discontent in light of what I have learned thus far.
One piece of my musing is about the Federalist-Republican/Democrat controversy that made the election of 1800 so wild and woolly, and has been with us ever since. The Federalist position (simplified) was (is?) that a strong federal government is necessary and that the Constitution did not make it strong enough. Coming from the dour religious views of our Puritan founders, Federalism assumed that people with too much individual liberty were liable to fall into sin, becoming frivolous and dissolute in their personal and political behavior. The Federalists at the time of the "electioneering" for the 1800 presidential election looked to the French Revolution, and seeing the extremes of the reign of Terror and Jacobinism, were determined to restrict the individual liberties of the hoi polloi in the nascent United States, in order to prevent such chaos. The High Federalists toyed with the idea of having the Senate and President of the United States serve for life, and together with the more moderate Federalists such as President John Adams, managed to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts in direct violation of the Constitutional guarrantees for Freedom of the Press, because of the danger to the country of a possible war with France. Sound familiar?
The Republicans, the party of Thomas Jefferson (not the party of Lincoln--the first Republicans later called themselves Democrats), believed that a weak and contentious federal government, whose power should be contained by checks and balances among the branches, was vital to the protection of the rights and liberties of the citizenry. Sons of the Enlightenment, our Republican founding fathers looked to the French revolution as a confirmation of our own struggle for liberty. They thought that the citizenry would only lose their liberty if their rights were restricted by elites. They opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts, and it was the editors of the Republican newspapers that courageously went to jail, and then continued to inform the American public about the restrictions placed on their liberties, in defiance of what they termed the "tyranny" of the Federalists.
As I have been reading, I have been thinking that the Federalists and the Republicans are still with us, to this day. Since the Civil War, and even more so since the Progressive era, it has been the 'Federalists' who have been gaining in power, and the Federal government has been strengthened at the expense of the liberties of the citizenry. The Federal system now includes a central bank, the Federal Reserve, that was once opposed by the Jeffersonian Republicans as the sure road to tyranny. The Federal government has taken an increasingly large role in telling the states how they may govern, as well as in directing the economic, social and personal lives of individual citizens. The Nanny State is well on the way to removing our remaining liberties, all for our own goods, of course.
And so we find ourselves, in this 'the spring of our discontent,' dealing with a falling dollar, a housing market in chaos, 'billions and billions' of dollars in unfunded entitlements strung like an albatross around our childrens' necks, and in a costly and bungled war, wondering what in the world our self-appointed leaders are planning to get us into next. (Oh, but we are being told that the check is in the mail. Of course it's our money, but we'll have to pay it back).
It is somewhat comforting to know that we are not the first generation of ordinary Americans to deal with this kind of fight. And although we are much nearer to tyranny now than the citizenry was before the election of 1800, we do have the example of those who went before us to strengthen our resolve.
It is a balancing act. That is what maintaining a cohesive national government and at the same time maintaining that government as the servant of the people requires. In 1800, the revolution was still fresh in the memories of the people. The failures of the Articles of Confederation demonstrated that a stronger central government was important, but the Alien and Sedition Acts showed that if the government become but a little too strong, the bright and shining experiment upholding the rights of man would certainly fail.
As I read, I am comforted by the fact that those people, our political and spiritual ancestors, did not meekly follow one or another of the parties. Vigorous dissention, strong debate, and an ongoing argument--these were the order of the day. But I know how it came out. Jefferson was elected and the excessive restrictions on the liberties of the citizenry were halted. But the question was not settled.
It will never be settled.
The balance must be maintained.
Stray but a little one way, and tyranny will ensue.
Stray but a little the other, and anarchy will prevail.
I think that now, in this spring of our discontent, as the party ends and the fiddler's bill comes due, we are leaning a little too insistently toward tyranny. We have been for much of the last century. We want someone else to pay the fiddler for us. And the presidential candidates we have to choose among seem happy to promise to do so. They all want to solve our problems for us, bail us out of our present difficulties, and stave off economic problems for a while longer (at least until the election is over) using quick fixes and expensive programs. They want to give us stuff to distract us from the loss of our national sovereignty and our individual liberties. And if we accept then we are sacrificing our children on the altar of the expediency of the moment.
As I read, I keep thinking of those people who were "rocked in the cradle of the revolution." They were hardy people, and prudent. If our ancestors could face pain and sacrifice in order to make a better world for their children, surely we have the same strength to do so. They did not prematurely give up the argument, and allow tyranny to prevail. Nor did they sit back and let chaos ensue. We can do the same, and maintain the balance in order to "secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity."
So I am feeling a little better. I feel that I am gaining some strength and resolve to face the coming wake-up call. And it is coming, no matter how many times we roll over and hit the snooze. But a look at history can strengthen a person. And listening in on the arguments and battles of our founders, can make one realize that contentiousness is our lot.
And it's a good one, if we can keep the balance.
"Wasn't that a time, wasn't that a time?
A time that tried the souls of men?
Wasn't that a terrible time?"
"We cannot choose the time we are born to, we can only choose what to do with the time we are given."
(Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring, Movie Version)
Now I just have to figure out who to write in next November.
Thomas Jefferson is not an option.