The Somewhat Representative Democracy

Federal Hall, New York City. The seat of the federal government in 1790.

William Findley, a man of Irish descent who came to play a powerful role in Pennsylvanian politics, had an idea about what a politician should be. He said that politicians should be able to advocate for their own cause when they take the floor, that politicians should openly support their interests. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 221. As Gordon Wood explained in Empire of Liberty, this idea challenged “the entire classical tradition of disinterested public leadership and set[] forth a rationale for a competitive interest-laden politics . . . .” id.

James Madison, in Federalist No. 10, feared such a thing: that politicians may be deciding issues that directly affect their interests.

Nonetheless, the American system has undoubtedly embraced such a principle. Politicians, perhaps now more than ever, are influenced by their own interests, which are shaped by various donations, gifts, and promises of future favors.

There is a significant question underlying all of this: Did the Founding Fathers contemplate that a representative democracy could transform itself into a system where the politicians are only representative of their constituencies to the extent those constituencies benefit from the donations, gifts, and promises of future favors?

Some may argue that the representative nature of the republic was and still is affected by this system. Politicians are elected based on their promises of what they will do for others, but when in office, perhaps their self-interests are the only ones that matter. Then, to the extent those self-interests align with their constituency, their record serves as a platform for re-elections.

Perhaps it is simply too idealistic to expect politicians to put their self-interests aside and govern with an even hand, representing the best interests of their constituents, not themselves. Regardless, there appears to be no question that Findley’s ideal politician has become the norm for politicians.

Had Madison known what would happen to politicians, he may not have been surprised, but he would have been disappointed.

Passion for Distinction

John Adams. By: John Trumbull.

In the early years of the Republic, John Adams commented on the various classes of American society: “the rich and the poor, the laborious and the idle, and the learned and the ignorant.” John Adams Letter to James Warren, January 9, 1787. He also observed that Americans had a certain “passion for distinction,” much as Alexis de Tocqueville would observe decades later in his visit to America. See Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty, 214. For example, a man would see his neighbor with a “better coat, house, or horse,” and he could not “bear it.” Wood, Empire of Liberty, 214.

Adams’ view for harnessing these uniquely American traits was to have the bicameral legislature, the House of Representatives and the Senate, representing the many versus the few, respectively, with the president serving as a mediator. Wood, Empire of Liberty, 214.

Over two centuries later, it is profound how much of Adams’ observations are true, but also how much has changed.

Of course, with the passage of the 17th Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1913, the very nature of the Senate changed. Rather than each state’s legislature electing senators, “the many” would be empowered with both electing representatives and senators to the United States Congress.

However, the observation of John Adams, and later Alexis de Tocqueville, that Americans had a passion for distinction appears to remain mostly unchanged. Some may speculate that as consumerism has grown over the past century in America, the desire to match other individuals’ status symbols has grown as well, but Adams’ and de Tocqueville’s observation seem to undercut that speculation.

What is it about Americans that draws us to compete against each other to want the best, have the best, and do the best? Some would say it is part of the unique American spirit. Others may contend that this is a mere anecdote and should not be taken to be generally true of Americans.

Anecdote or not, there does appear to be an ounce of truth to it.

Economic Sanctions

George Washington, as portrayed on the $1 note.

Washington’s writings are replete with revelations about the hopes and aspirations for the country. Often, it is common for modern Americans to think that the Founding Fathers, despite all of their wisdom, could hardly imagine what the United States would become. For instance, now, the world is interconnected in a way as never before. One may be tempted to posit that the world has become a more complicated place, and our recent leaders have created new tactics to deal with geopolitical issues. One such tactic that one may imagine is newly created is the use of economic sanctions.

In fact, the Founding Fathers not only contemplated the use of economic sanctions, but sought for the implementation of sanctions in lieu of going to war. In George Washington’s letter to Lafayette, dated August 15, 1786, he noted “the probable influence that commerce may hereafter have on human manners and society in general,” hoping that it could lead to the demise of “the devastation and horrors of war.” Fitzpatrick, ed., Writings of Washington, 28: 520. Nor was Washington alone in this belief. Far from it.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had consistently hoped for the same, aspiring for the day where American sanctions would divert wars but preserve American interests. Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty, (New York, 2009), 138.

As is clear from modern history, economic sanctions have shown their utility, whether they be imposed for ideological differences, such as against Russia and former Soviet Union countries or imposed to discourage nuclear development and proliferation, such as against Iran. The use of economic sanctions is of course premised on America having a fundamental role in the world economy, which has certainly been the case in the last century and continuing until now.

Presently, the United States accounts for 23% of global gross domestic product and 12% of merchandise trade. The Economist, Vol. 417, No. 8958 (October 3, 2015). Having such a significant role in the world economy gives the United States the “soft power” of influencing other countries to act in accordance with America’s best interests, without America committing significant resources.

The Founding Fathers, in their wisdom and their grand hopes for the United States, hoped to see this day, where the sheer size and power of the economy would force others to bend to American interests. Their imagined use, or the threat of use, of economic sanctions has come to fruition. Just another instance of the prescience of the Founding Fathers.

Political Parties

Alexander Hamilton, L. Thomas Jefferson, R.

Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson had a contentious relationship, from their time serving as Secretaries in Washington’s administration forward. That contentious relationship manifested itself, at least partially, in the fact that they had crucial ideological differences. At first, those ideological differences were not reflected by different memberships in political parties. During the time they were Secretaries in Washington’s administration, there were no political parties.

When the two political parties, the Federalists and the Republicans, were created, Hamilton and Jefferson both had overblown ideas of what would each other’s party intended. Jefferson feared that Hamilton wished to implement a monarchy, and Hamilton feared that Jefferson intended to overthrow the government of the United States. As a general matter, the Federalist government feared that any Republicans or individuals with different views were determined to undermine the existence of the government and determined to bring an end to the system that the majority of Americans had worked so hard to create.

In fact, however, the Republican party did not see itself as a political party, and the Federalists did not view themselves as members of a political party in those early years. For example, the Federalists saw themselves as the vast majority of people who were concerned about the state of the country. Those in the Republican party ultimately began making Democratic-Republican Societies throughout the country, which demanded changes from the status quo of the predominantly Federalist government.

What a change the political party system has undergone since the late 1790s. Many would attribute the success of America’s political system to the fact that two main parties, now the Democrats and Republicans, have consistently vied against each other, generally agreeing to move the country forward by meeting in the middle. As Hamilton and Jefferson exaggerated the intentions and beliefs of the opposing party, modern Democrats and Republicans tend to do the same, at least to an extent.

That healthy debate between two adversaries has sustained not only the court system from ancient days to modern days but also the American system of politics. An adversarial contest between two parties prevents a cacophony of voices that tend to overwhelm multi-party political systems. Rather, it places two parties against each other, creating competition, encouraging debate, and having the net effect of putting the country on a moderate path, with gradual changes coming over the course of decades. Perhaps that gradual, conservative nature of progress has been the cause of America’s prolonged success.

East Versus West?

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – Late 1700s, Early 1800s.

In 1790, President Washington implemented an excise tax on spirits distilled within the United States. A bold move for the Federalists, who were seeking to create a more assertive, more organized, more cohesive federal government. The maverick states did not take kindly to it, nor did the citizens affected by this newly created tax.

What was their reaction? Seek secession. The Federalists, including Washington and his Secretary of State, Alexander Hamilton, had a dilemma on their hands. The federal government needed legitimacy, but it also needed to maintain the peace amongst the ever-expanding states and their differing populations. It seems to be forgotten in modern discourse that there were more fractures in American history than just North versus South in the Civil War era. In the early 1790s, the fracture split East between West, as the Eastern aristocrats and monied individuals sought to impose taxes and other restrictions on the Western settlers.

Washington and Alexander had differing views. Hamilton advocated for an immediate use of force by a militia, while Washington sent a peace commission, hoping to resolve the rebellion in the West without force. Ultimately, the peace commission failed, and a force of 15,000 men quelled the rebellion with only a few arrests and presidential pardons of those convicted of treason. John C. Miller, The Federalist Era, (New York, 1960), 158; Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty, (New York, 2009), 138.

Ultimately, the rebellion, now known as the Whiskey Rebellion, was perhaps the first test of the federal government’s role. The states had become accustomed to policing themselves, free of interference, and Washington’s action of assembling a militia and sending the militia to Western Pennsylvania set the clear, stern tone of the federal government.

It is tempting to speculate what could have happened had Washington not taken such decisive action to quell the rebellion. Would there have been a secession? Was the Western economy sufficient to sustain itself? Would it have led to a first Civil War, only to be followed by a second? Less dramatically, would not taking decisive action have led to a weak federal government, similar to the one that prompted the drafting and adoption of the Constitution in the first place?

Setting aside the potentials and the speculation, the Whiskey Rebellion foreshadowed the problems to come for the United States and set the stage for the role of the federal government. Even now, Americans debate how involved the federal government should be in the individual affairs of states, but by setting an early example, Washington and Hamilton made it more likely than not that the federal government would take decisive action when necessary to protect the health and wellbeing of the Union.

Seeds of Success

George Washington’s First Annual Message to Congress. January 8, 1790.

In George Washington’s First Annual Message to Congress, he looked beyond the largely then-agricultural states and expressed his aspiration that the United States would be self-sufficient for its agricultural, manufacturing, and military needs. At the time, this was a Federalist-backed belief, so that the United States could become a rival to the powers of Europe.

But it planted the seeds for the transformation of America. Then-Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton took Washington’s message to heart, drawing up the Report on the Subject of Manufactures on December 5, 1791. In his report, Hamilton recognized that the building of the American powerhouse economy would take “three or four decades,” but he sketched out the basic economic keys to enabling the transformation to occur. For example, Hamilton explained the necessity of establishing banks, a national mint, and a uniform, paper currency.

These actions by Hamilton and Washington planted the seeds for the United States to take full advantage of the Industrial Revolution’s seismic changes, which of course would place the United States among the leading nations in the world. Considering what was to come in the next three to four decades, and the two centuries since then, Hamilton and Washington have shown their wisdom and vision for the country.

Looking more broadly at American history, it is difficult to identify a more pivotal moment in setting the trajectory for the country. The gravity of policy decisions seldom have the long term consequences that the early decisions of the first presidents had. One could speculate that the Americans’ preparedness for the Spanish American War, World War I, and World War II was bolstered by Washington’s and Hamilton’s idea to transition the economy from a largely agricultural society to a manufacturing, military-focused society.

Regardless, it does not require speculation to conclude that we are certainly the beneficiaries of their wisdom.

The Monarchical Republic

George Washington. By: Gilbert Stuart.

At the time of George Washington’s presidency, the role, image, and traditions surrounding the executive office was unclear. It was a new concept entirely, particularly in light of the numerous, well-established monarchies of Europe. In fact, during this time, Poland had an elected monarchy.

For clarity as to the role of the president, many Americans looked to the monarchs of Europe, demanding that the presidency must carry with it a level of regality, tradition, and pomp that was intended to invoke honor and dignity. However much Americans wished to dispose of the monarchical system and replace it with a republic, Americans had little guidance outside of Europe for how a leader should conduct himself or herself.

Many of the traditions first established during Washington’s presidency, such as formal dinners with the powder-haired president where no individual was permitted to speak, have fallen by the wayside in the past two centuries. This is despite the power of the president consistently growing since the days of Washington. However, it seems that Americans now would not tolerate a stiff, overly dignified president who appears to be far superior to the common person. Why is that? Perhaps it’s American pragmatism? Or a collective fear of having a Messianic leader?

Probably a little bit of both. Underlying much of the American sentiment, now and then, is the fear that the republic will slowly become either an empire or a kingdom, in the way that Rome did. These fears underlie the American pragmatism and create a collective feeling that any person with too much power, and any government with too much power, is undesirable.

It is safe to say that Americans have always been keen to avoid both the English and Roman ways of declining in power. Avoiding monarchy, while still flirting with its decorum, characterized the early years of the American republic. Now, it is all but forgotten.

The Last Best Hope of Earth

Abraham Lincoln – Gettysburg Address

This blog is intended to capture the spirit of the words of Abraham Lincoln in his December 1, 1862 address to Congress amidst the Civil War: “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.” These words reflect the optimism for America’s future, the uniqueness of America’s role in the world, and the direness of the Civil War. These words are also highly contextual, as likely few modern Americans would call the United States “the last best hope of earth.”

Nonetheless, by uncovering the past and juxtaposing it with contemporary events, this blog aspires to both inform and inspire the reader by showing that despite the doomsayers (modern and historical), the United States is not only mostly adhering to its founding principles but also on an upward trajectory, as it generally has been since its inception.