Constitution Sunday: A Cumberland County Mutual Improvement Society Addresses the Pennsylvania Minority

A Cumberland County Mutual Improvement Society Addresses the Pennsylvania Minority

Carlisle Gazette, (Pennsylvania), January 2, 1788

One of the most frequent dooming political predictions that Americans—of any political persuasion—tend to make is that the end of the Republic, and therefore the end of liberty, has come. This prediction even goes back to the debate of the Constitution in 1788, which a minority in the State Convention of Pennsylvania opposed. The prediction persists because the circumstances under which a republic ends are amorphous as the Cumberland County Mutual Improvement Society’s makes clear in its address supporting the minority at the State Convention:

“The history of mankind is pregnant with frequent, bloody, and almost imperceptible transitions from freedom to slavery. Rome, after she had been long distracted by the fury of the patrician and plebeian parties, at length found herself reduced to the most abject slavery under a Nero, a Caligula, &c. The successive convulsions, which happened at Rome, were the immediate consequence of the aspiring ambition of a few great men, and the very organization and construction of the government itself.”

According to the Society’s view of history, transitions from free to slave societies may be bloody but also may be imperceptible, and Rome is just one of many examples. The Society also analyzed the republic of Venice which had degenerated “into an odious and permanent aristocracy.” With those historical lessons in mind, the Society concluded that the proposed Constitution would lead to America’s transition from a free to slave society just as befell Rome and Venice, and because the Society prized “the felicity and freedom of our posterity equally with our own, we esteem it our indispensible [sic] duty to oppose it with that determined resolution and spirit that becomes freemen.” Evidence was abundant that the Constitution would precipitate the country’s fall as there was already “[d]iscontent, indignation, and revenge,” and civil discord had raised “her sneaky head.”

While the reasoning behind the Society’s criticism of the Constitution was not clear, the address’ tone and prediction of doom based on the circumstances of the moment fit the pattern of the aforementioned predictions. Each historical and modern instance of a republic falling had a unique set of circumstances, and some of those instances had less perceptible falls than others. That difficulty in perceiving—and documenting—a transition allows the persistence of the prediction that the fall is imminent. One who disagrees with the prediction, and its supporting facts and circumstances, can only counter by curating his or her own favorable facts and circumstances. Thus, predictions compete with predictions, and the predictors must wait for the actors to act and for history to unfold. Once that history has unfolded, a retrospective look may validate some predictions as having come true, but the more distant that look is from the moment (or the more cursory that look is), the more difficult it becomes to measure the veracity of the prediction and its underlying reasoning.

In the case of Rome’s fall, any number of contemporaries doubted the longevity of the Republic and made attempts at documenting its transition into an empire, but two millennia later, there is still reasonable debate as to the proximate causes of that transition—and that reasonable debate tends to occur in the context of each participant bringing his or her own narrative into the conversation for reasons other than determining which predictor should be validated (such as to confirm the merits of one’s own ideology or simply to justify, or denounce, a modern political decision). Consequently, if one is fearful that the end of the Republic is near and he or she treasures that Republic, being active in preserving the Republic—which may take any number of forms—is a superior use of energy and intellect than lamenting and predicting its loss.

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