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Saturday, February 02, 2013

The Rational And Peaceable Instrument Of Reform

I guess because there's been so much talk of revolution, we've been watching the John Adams miniseries for, like, the 1776th time.  As always, it sparks new thoughts with each viewing.

This time around, I was particularly tuned to a scene in the 2nd episode, where our hearty band of rebels is in Congress debating the Declaration (at other times I've been more focused on things said by Abigail or John Dickinson, amongst others).  Adams gives a passionate speech in favor of independence:

objects of the most stupendous magnitude... measures which will affect the lives of millions, born and unborn... are now before us. we must expect a great expense of blood to obtain them. but we must always remember that a free constitution of civil government cannot be purchased at too dear a rate, as there is nothing on this side of jerusalem of greater importance to mankind.

my worthy colleague from pennsylvania has spoken with great ingenuity and eloquence. he has given you a grim prognostication of our national future. but where he foresees apocalypse, i see hope. i see a new nation ready to take its place in the world. not an empire, but a republic. and a republic of laws, not men.

gentlemen, we are in the very midst of revolution the most complete, unexpected and remarkable of any in the history of the world. how few of the human race have ever had an opportunity of choosing a system of government for themselves? and their children?

i am not without apprehensions, gentlemen. but the end we have in sight is more than worth all the means.

i believe, sirs, that the hour has come. my judgment approves this measure, and my whole heart is in it. all that i have, all that i am and all that i hope in this life, i am now ready to stake upon it. while i live, let me have a country-- a free country.

Not bad oratory but as David McCullough, author of the book that HBO's material was ostensibly based on, notes of the event:

No transcription was made, no notes were kept. There would be only Adams's own recollections, plus those of several others who would remember more the force ofAdams himself than any particular thing he said.

Mindful of the dangers in ascribing any literalness to speechifying from those days, particularly when presented in a dramatization, I was curious where the words did come from.  They sure sounded Adamsy enough, and indeed some were his, such as these from a letter he wrote in June of that year:

Objects of the most Stupendous Magnitude, Measures in which the Lives and Liberties of Millions, born and unborn are most essentially interested, are now before Us. We are in the very midst of a Revolution, the most compleat, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the History of Nations. 

His last powerful line, however, appears to have come from a meta speech given by Daniel Webster at a memorial for Adams and Jefferson.  This apparently is sometimes mistaken for an actual Adams oration.

In addition to misattribution of smart sounding words to the Founders, we also run into another problem: zeroing in on something they said in a particular context at the expense of the entire tapestry of their thoughts and words.

For example, consider a couple letters written by Thomas Jefferson that are lovingly quoted by people with insurrectionist fantasies.  First, to James Madison in January of 1787:

I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.

And in a November letter to Adam's son-in-law, Col Smith (which appeared in part as spoken at a different time and place in the fifth Adams epi):

God forbid we should ever be 20 years without [a] rebellion. The people cannot be all, & always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty...

[W]hat country can preserve it's liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it's natural manure.

Notice a few of Jefferson's observations that go beyond the mere celebration of rebellion (which was ultimately tempered by revolutionary excesses in France): unsuccessful insurrections can exacerbate the situation; the People can be misinformed and misguided; a truly republican government ought to gently correct participants in unrest with facts (and the rebels should accept such rebuke by implication).  What's more, this all was written before our Constitution was ratified and implemented, so there was much to fear about a wholly new frame of government that centralized power more than most people were accustomed to in the young United States.  People were very sensitive to threats against their hard won liberty, and rightfully so.

Yet less than a generation later, Jefferson would find himself to be President under that Constitution he was so leery of.  And he became so in a new kind of revolution, as he noted a few years before his death:

[The Revolution of 1800] as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form; not effected indeed by the sword, as that, but by the rational and peaceable instrument of reform, the suffrage of the people. The nation declared its will by dismissing functionaries of one principle, and electing those of another, in the two branches, executive and legislative, submitted to their election.

The Constitution worked.  We enjoyed a peaceful transfer of power not just from Washington to his successor, but from a member of one party to another.  The republican structure we established showed some weaknesses, but Jefferson was able to win an election and use his granted powers to correct much of what went wrong, and the Amendment process fixed other problems.  For the next few decades, Jefferson's party maintained control as Adam's and Hamilton's Federalists withered away.  

All this transpired without the need for arms, but rather through the regular functioning of our electoral processes, making it a much more powerful and lasting revolution than any won by force.  Indeed, rebellion can actually threaten liberty.  Madison echoed Jefferson during Virginia's debates on militia provisions in the new Constitution:

[W]ithout such a power to suppress insurrections, our liberties might be destroyed by domestic faction, and domestic tyranny be established.

It really brings up the question: who gets to decide when the government is tyrannical, and when to revolt?  In 1776, it was a bunch of motivated, fairly rich white men representing colonists who excercised their natural, extra-constitutional rights to sever ties with an unrepresentative government far away.  Today do we really trust our security and liberty now to a mob of well-armed, self-styled patriots who object to our representative government trying to make some provision toward the common good for quasi-universal healthcare through its plenary power to tax and regulate interstate commerce (the Roberts Court's ruling on the latter notwithstanding), or other such things enacted by duly-elected legislators and executives?

At this point, even with erosion of civil liberties at home and imperialist foreign policy, I'm beginning to eye with greater suspicion not our government, but rather the people who own a significant chunk of the 300M guns circulating in this country.  They are armed, which makes them swagger (see Myth #3), and apparently feel they're the ultimate arbiters of what's the proper interpretation of our Constitution.  That is the stuff of warlords and might makes right, not the rule of law and liberty.

It's especially disturbing when they do this whilst quoting the Founding Generation, as though use of totemic words confers extra force to their bullets that can overcome our ballots.  All that really proves is they fetishize the sword and ignore what came from the pens of rational and peaceable men like Madison and Jefferson and Adams.

ntodd

[Update: fixed some late-night issues.]

February 2, 2013 in Constitution, Schmonstitution | Permalink

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