Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Taxation without Representation
One of the most significant developments in the colonies as George III assumed the throne was the presence of thousands of British troops fighting the French-Indian War. Salutary Neglect was soon thrown out the window as it became apparent that the troops would have to be paid for, and that the troops could collect taxes imposed on the colonists. This was at the root of the parliamentary legislation of the 1760s and '70s that led to a civil war between the colonies and the Mother Country.
It began with the Sugar Act of 1764. It actually reduced the tariff imposed by the Molasses Act of 1733, but the presence of both troops and ships in the colonies made enforcing the Act much easier. It also spelled the end of Salutary Neglect, a policy to which the colonists had grown accustomed. Many merchants who had simply smuggled molasses or sugar into the colonies suddenly found their activities scrutinized and some had their ships and cargoes seized.
But it was the Stamp Act of 1765 that changed everything between the Britain and her North American colonies. This was an excise tax, not a tariff, on paper products. Individuals who sold paper products had to pay a tax to the collector who would then stamp the paper indicating the tax was paid. Many colonists, particularly in the port towns where paper was widely used, were outraged. Groups of men formed themselves into "Sons of Liberty" organizations and began to practice old folk mores of intimidating, abusing, even tar and feathering tax collectors. Those who paid the tax were at risk from these groups as handbills calling for the boycott of their shops would be pasted on their windows.
This anger was channeled into a convention that dubbed itself the Stamp Act Congress. This was a gathering of representatives from nine of the thirteen colonies that issued a "Declaration of Rights and Grievances" in response to the Stamp Act. The Declaration stated that King-in-Parliament had no right to tax the colonies in this way since there was no representative elected from the colonies to serve in Parliament. The Congress also called for a boycott of British goods in an attempt to use economic power against the Stamp Act. George Grenville responded to this complaint by stating that the colonies were "virtually represented" in Parliament because that institution inherently had the colonists' interests at heart. Many colonists were skeptical.
Moreover, many of the colonists insisted that if there were to be a tax imposed on them, it should properly be brought through the colonial legislatures. This was their right as Englishmen, they argued. Grenville held that King-in-Parliament was the sovereign, and that the authority to tax resided only in that institution and not in the colonial legislatures. This was a constitutional crisis: many colonists had assumed that their legislatures had held some measure of sovereignty for the purpose of conducting public affairs in the colonies. Nevertheless, it was a fact that Parliament -- specifically the House of Commons -- had become the institution entrusted with the power of taxation.
The tensions and threat of escalating violence had reached such a level over the winter of 1765-'66 that in March, Parliament voted to repeal the Stamp Tax. They reasserted, however -- by passing the Declaratory Act -- Parliament's right to tax the colonies as they saw fit. They just hoped to quell immediate unrest by repealing the tax, but the colonists, Grenville and others insisted, must pay for the army that was in North America to protect them from Indians and possible incursions from the French or the Spanish. Again, many colonists were skeptical and preferred that the "standing army" of redcoats simply go home.
The following year, in 1767, Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend proposed another way of increasing revenue from the colonies. The equivalent of the modern American Secretary of the Treasury, Townshend asked Parliament to pass a tariff on the manufactured goods tea, lead, paper, paint, and glass. This "Towshend Act" led to another wave of discord in the colonies: boycotts, handbills, riots, protests, and tar-and-featherings returned and continued through the end of the decade.
A new Prime Minister was named in 1770. Lord Frederick North (or simply Lord North) was somewhat less heavy-handed toward the colonies and got Parliament to repeal the Townshend tax on all the itemized manufactured goods except for tea. By retaining a tariff on tea, the equivalent of the Declaratory Act was achieved; i.e., Parliament retained the right to tax the colonies.
On the day the Townshend Acts were repealed, a confrontation took place between angry citizens and the military guards of the Boston Customs House. The situation deteriorated rapidly and reinforcements were called in as citizens hurled bricks as well as insults at the guards. Finally, the officer in charge ordered the soldiers to open fire in self-defense, killing several (the number varies in the sources) citizens. News of this incident circulated rapidly and was soon called the "Boston Massacre." John Adams, a local lawyer, was outraged by the riot and offered to defend the soldiers, saying it was a nation of laws, not of men. He won the case, with the officer in charge receiving a reprimand.
This incident gave both colonists and British officials pause. Did they really want an escalation of violence? While propaganda wars continued on both sides, on the surface things calmed down somewhat. Historians call the years 1770-'73 the "Quite Period" because of this seeming calm. But when the British Parliament passed the Tea Act of 1773, essentially subsidizing the British East India Company with taxpayer dollars, tensions escalated again.
In Boston, which was the headquarters of colonial radicalism by this time, the local Sons of Liberty - led by Samuel Adams - issued a warning to commercial ships bearing tea in the cargoes to leave the port. Indeed, this warning was repeated throughout the colonies. Most ships took the warning seriously, but some did not. In Boston, Sam Adams led the local Sons of Liberty in an action against the H.M.S. Dartmouth. Dressed as Indians, they threw over 200 casks of tea into Boston Harbor -- a loss of around 18,000 British pounds. The response of the British to this event is the reason why this is remembered as the "Boston Tea Party." Other actions, some more serious than this, occurred in the colonies, but Boston was a long-time thorn in the side of the Colonial Office.
Parliament responded by passing the Coercive Acts. These were four in number and were very punitive toward to town of Boston and the colony of Massachusetts:
1) The Port Bill. This closed Boston harbor to all commerce until restitution was paid for the loss of the tea.
2)The Government Act. This disbanded the colonial council and replaced it with a military governor, General Thomas Gage, who assumed "command" of the colony and port.
3) The Quartering Act. Required residents to provide housing and sustenance for troops brought into the town from the western forts.
4) The Justice Act. This allowed for any British official who killed or injured a colonist "in the performance of their duties" to be taken back to London for a hearing. This, as opposed to being tried by a colonial jury.
Many colonists resented these Coercive Acts, but what really got under their skin was the Quebec Act. The French-Indian War, many colonists thought, would result in their having access to the Ohio Country. This had been forbidden by the Proclamation Line of 1763. Now, Parliament moved the boundary of Quebec to the Ohio River, giving access to the region to French-Catholics forbidden to British Protestants.
Altogether, these became known to the colonists as the "Intolerable Acts." As with the Stamp Act, the colonies formed a congress, this one became known as the First Continental Congress. In debating how to respond to the Intolerable Acts, this Congress decided upon a proposal from the Massachusetts delegation -- predictably the most radical delegation -- known as the Suffolk Resolves. This proposal called for colonists to arm themselves, prepare for war, and to once again boycott British goods as had been done in the 1760s.
In the process of establishing arms caches and training militia -- many colonists vigorously opposed the idea of a standing army -- Gen. Gage launched an expedition to find and destroy these caches and to round up the leaders of the insurgents. He sent a force of 700 British regulars on a foray to the villages of Lexington and Concord, west of Boston. At Lexington, a group of militiamen were engaged in military drills on the village green as a show of defiance to the British. Lt. Col. Francis Smith, in command of the British force, ordered a volley to be fired at the militia and a battle ensued resulting in the deaths of several militiamen.
The company then moved onto Concord, being increasingly harassed by fire from militia members coming in from the countryside. They hid behind trees and rocks often, leading the British to label them as cowardly - fighting guerrilla or Indian style. By the time the British troops were headed back to Boston, they were outnumbered by militiamen and broke into a full retreat. In the end, upwards of 300 British troops were killed, wounded, or missing. The militia suffered around 100 casualties. Ralph Waldo Emerson would later immortalize the event as the "shot heard 'round the world." The Revolutionary War had begun.
That was on April 19, 1775. By July, the town have Boston had experienced a profound turnover in population. "Whigs," or those sympathetic to the boycotts and protests, left Boston for the countryside as it became occupied by British troops and came under martial law declared by Gen. Thomas Gage. "Tories," or those sympathetic to the British, left the countryside and came into Boston for protection. The population was reduced by about half in the town. In June, "Continentals," as the Whig troops were now called, set up artillery on Breed's Hill -- mistakenly thinking it was Bunker's Hill -- across the river from Boston, and began to shell the British-occupied town. The British counter-attacked and a bloody battle ensued. When the smoke cleared, the British suffered over one thousand casualties and the Continentals around five hundred.
The significance of the battle was two-fold. First, the British had to face the fact that the colonists had been able to muster a significant fighting force, and while the British had been victorious, their losses had been very heavy. Second, the colonists' Continental Congress had submitted an "Olive Branch Petition" in hopes of a peaceful resolution, but Bunker Hill hardened George III's attitude toward them.
In 1776, the 2nd Continental Congress was convened. After months of debate, Richard Henry Lee proposed it, and Congress decided to issue a Declaration of Independence to be written by Thomas Jefferson, one of the Virginia delegation. Jefferson tapped John Locke's "Social Contract" in laying out the colonists' argument for independence. King-in-Parliament had failed to protect the natural right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" guaranteed to all British citizens. Jefferson listed the grievances and then stated that because of this, the colonists essentially had no choice but to create a new government.
The document was signed by John Hancock on July 4, and by the others in August when they returned to the Congress.
Between Bunker Hill and the Declaration of Independence, a British immigrant by the name of Thomas Paine had published a pamphlet entitled Common Sense. This was a diatribe against monarchy and imperialism and was really quite radical in its rhetoric. It was widely read in the colonies and won many colonists over to the cause of independence.
All of this of course added up to a civil war between Britain and her North American colonies (with the exception of Canada). It would be a protracted war fought between a rag-tag army of farmers and artisans against the most powerful empire in the western world.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
All of these are the result of European and Euro-American imperial expansion. With the rise of the new economic system that moved away from the old European feudal system, the search for resources and markets became a central activity of nation-states such as Spain, England, France, and the Netherlands. The prospects for individuals who had no access to land in Europe were greatly improved in the New World as well. This led to a clash of cultures that is best described as the "Indian Wars." By the time Euro-Americans arrived on the Great Plains, a pattern had been established for the usurpation of the natives' lands.
The story told in this essay begins with a clash between the land-hungry settlers on the central Great Plains and the native peoples of that region, namely the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache and, to a lesser extent, the Lakota, Shoshone, Utes, and a few other groups. During the Civil War, regular army troops who had been engaging Plains peoples since the early 1850s had been called back east to fight the Confederate Army. In Colorado Territory, a militia was formed known as the "100-Dazers" -- men who volunteered for the militia were given a horse, a gun, a bit of money, and served for 100 days. Many of these men were of the variety known as "Indian-haters," a tradition that went back to the beginning of European conquest.
One group of "100-Dazers" was led by the Methodist minister the Reverend John Chivington, AKA the "Fighting Parson." He and most of his followers were of a particularly virulent form of Indian-hater. Clashes between Indians and whites were nothing knew in the region, and often the bodies of the victims were maimed and trophies such as scalps and body parts were taken. These incidents happened on both sides.
In November of 1864, regular army Captain Edward Wynkoop told the Cheyenne peace chief Black Kettle that he and his followers could camp safely at Sand Creek, about 150 miles southwest of Denver. Black Kettle's band made their way to the spot, where these 500+ mainly women, children, and elderly made camp. On the morning of November 29, 1864, Chivington's band of 100-Dazers attacked the camp, killing 150-300 of these mostly defenseless Cheyenne and Arapaho. Some estimates of the dead are higher. White militiamen took "trophies" -- head scalps, pubic hair scalps from the women, ears, hands, men's scrota, etc. -- and brought them back for display at the theater in Denver. When whites back east heard of this, most were stunned and called for an investigation.
While this investigation went forward, retaliations occurred on the Plains from the Cheyenne war faction, known as the Dog Soldiers. Such was the tension in the region two years later when gold was discovered in Montana. Fort Laramie had existed on the Overland Trail for over thirty years, so gold-seekers naturally used it as a supply base as they blazed a trail to the gold fields known as the Bozeman Trail. This trail went through the heart of some of the best bison country on the High Plains in what is today eastern Wyoming. Indians like the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho, Crow, Shoshone and others were outraged. Oglala Lakota leader Red Cloud met at Fort Laramie with the Civil War veteran General William Tecumseh Sherman. As they negotiated, an army wagon train arrived carrying lumber for forts accompanied by supporting troops. It was clear to Red Cloud that the negotiations had been a deception and he stormed out of the fort threatening trouble. This trouble, which continued for the next two years, is known as Red Cloud's War.
The army proceeded to build three forts along the trail ostensibly to protect the fortune-seekers invading the Indians' lands. Two major battles occurred: the "Fetterman Massacre," and the "Wagon Box Fight," the first of which ended with a decisive Indian victory, the second had more of an ambiguous end. The end result was that after two years fighting and threats, the army abandoned the defense of the Bozeman Trail and the Indians burned the forts. The resulting treaty, known as the 2nd Treaty of Fort Laramie, (the first was negotiated in 1851), bore long-term influence the extends down the current day.
The 2nd Treaty of Fort Laramie guaranteed the Sioux Indians the right to lands west of the Missouri River to the western border of what is today North and South Dakota. This arrangement lasted until 1874, when Col. George Armstrong Custer led a group of goldseekers into the Black Hills, which the Lakota call Paha Sapa and consider sacred. Gold was found there, leading to another gold rush and whites flooded into the Sioux reserve. They built towns, established farms and ranches, and took advantage of army protection and the continually weakening condition of the Indians to establish their claims. In the 20th century, this discrepancy of ownership found its way into the court system, and in 1980 the Supreme Court ruled, in U.S. v. Sioux Nation, that the Black Hills did in fact belong to the Sioux tribe. However, they stressed that the Sioux could not take over white property rights; the whites would stay but the Sioux would be paid $110 million. The Sioux, asserting the sacredness of the Paha Sapa in their tradition, refused the money. This situation remains unresolved to this day -- the money remains in a trust fund drawing interest.
Meanwhile, in the Southern Plains, other events were unfolding that would lead to more conflict and, ultimately, the end of free-roaming native peoples in that region. Fur traders had been in the Great Plains region for centuries at this point, but the great bison herds still flourished because it was still uneconomical to process their think and ample hides for leather products. However, by 1870, John Wesley Mooar and his brother Josiah Wright Mooar developed a tanning process that was inexpensive enough to make a profit from the hides. Josiah came to Kansas and offered $5.00 a hide for dried bison skins. This created a powerful incentive to begin slaughtering the bison for profit, and in the short space of 15-20 years, the approximately 40 million bison on the Great Plains were nearly gone. The bison hide industry created great sums of wealth for fur dealers like John Jacob Astor, and outfitted the reinvigorated British Empire in bison leather.
In the southern plains, the bison hide industry was challenged by the powerful Comanche and their Kiowa and Kiowa-Apache allies. This challenge was known as the "Red River War." The best-known battles of this war were the "Battle of Adobe Walls," and the destruction of a large Indian encampment at Palo Duro Canyon, both of which took place in the Texas Panhandle region. In the end, the Indians were ordered onto a reservation near Fort Sill in Indian Territory (Oklahoma), and those who did not come in were considered fair game for the cavalry. This was the end of free roaming indigenous peoples on the southern plains.
In 1876, confrontations between Indians and whites on the northern plains were coming to a head. At the annual gathering on Greasy Grass Creek in modern-day Montana, a creek the whites called the Little Big Horn, 10,000 or so Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and others gathered for their annual celebrations before the summer bison hunt. This gathering around the summer solstice had been held since time immemorial, and reflected the season of the bison rut and other large mammals that also gathered together at that time.
The ambitious Brevet General / Colonel George Armstrong Custer -- he of the goldseekers wagon train in the Black Hills -- was determined to win a great victory over these Indians. Some thought that Custer was considering a presidential run as a hero of the Plains Indian Wars. On June 26, proceeding against the advice of his Crow Indian scouts, Custer led approximately 230 men into an attack on this Indian encampment, with a supporting force of several hundred more cavalry soldiers. In retrospect, and for some who were there at the time, this was a foolhardy and suicidal attack that ended in the death of Custer and his company. This event, known as "Custer's Last Stand," instantly transformed Custer into a national hero and inflamed public outrage against the Indians.
For their part, the Indians made for Canada, burning the grass behind them so the cavalry ponies would have no fodder. Among the Sioux, one group, led by the Minneconjou Lakota Holy Man Sitting Bull, made it to Canada and spend a couple of years searching for the scarce remnants of the bison herds to feed themselves. Another group, led by Crazy Horse, decided to stay in the homelands near the Black Hills and returned to Fort Robinson in modern-day northwest Nebraska. When the cavalry tried to arrest Crazy Horse, he resisted and was bayoneted in the back, dying in the night with his parents at his side. Sitting Bull, meanwhile, elected to return eventually, and enjoyed a short career in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. He toured Europe and North America, making himself even more famous. Tragically, Sitting Bull and his only son were murdered by Indian police in his home in 1890 when they cracked down on the Ghost Dance movement.
Sunday, January 16, 2011
After a brief Whig presidency (1841-1845, William Henry Harrison and John Tyler), the Democrats regained control of the government. Led by James K. Polk, Jacksonian Democracy had moved away from moralistic republicanism and toward an expansionist, nationalistic mode of thought. This expansionism, often expressed by the term “Manifest Destiny” – the sense that the United States had a divine mission to establish itself from the Atlantic to the Pacific – found its ultimate expression in the Mexican-American War.
Under the guise of a border dispute in the newly-admitted state of Texas, Polk sent an army to start a war with the Mexicans that resulted in the invasion and occupation of the Mexican capital and ultimately, the addition of the so-called “Mexican Cession.” This “Cession” included most of what is today the American West, including California. Northerners were slow to realize that much of the motivation for the Mexican War came from southern planters’ desire for a port on the west coast. San Diego was known to be the best port in “Alta California,” and it was a straight line to there from the heart of cotton country using the technological wonder of the railway.
The question of the expansion of slavery, exacerbated by the Mexican Cession, the discovery of gold in California (1849), and the desire of northerners like Chicagoan Stephen Douglas for their own transcontinental railroad, became a severely polarizing issue in the 1850s. The Kansas-Nebraska Act opened former “Indian territories” of Kansas and Nebraska to white settlement in 1854. Beginning with the Mexican Cession, popular sovereignty was the preferred method to decide the issue of slavery’s expansion. This led to open warfare in Kansas Territory in 1856 between pro-slavery people from Missouri and the New England Emigrant Aid Company, founders of the “free state” town of Lawrence, and other anti-slavery settlers in Kansas.
In 1854, a relatively new northern alliance of wealthy northeastern business interests and so-called “free-soiler” farmers of the Old Northwest (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin), the Mid-Atlantic states, and New England, led to the formation of the Republican Party (today’s Republican Party). When their candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, southern planters felt that their interests were acutely threatened by a northerner in the White House. Britain, France, and Holland had all emancipated their slaves in the Atlantic world, and slave owners in the southern U.S. feared this writing on the wall. Relying on the rhetoric of states’ rights and led by South Carolina, southern states began to secede from the Union after Lincoln’s election.
When Lincoln tried to re-supply Fort Sumter in Charleston, SC harbor, the South Carolina militia opened fire, beginning a Civil War that would turn into a national bloodbath – over 600,000 killed in four years. In addition to the vicious battles that exhibited early modern war tactics being used against modern weaponry, four million freed slaves and reactionary whites in the South created a social crisis that threatened to overwhelm the torn nation after the war. “Reconstruction” was the period between the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s army in 1865 and the removal of Union troops from the South in 1877.
So when the citizens of the United States ushered in the year 1877, the experiment of Reconstruction – rehabilitating the South in the image of the North – had recently been abandoned. The industrial revolution was taking hold in both the Northeast and the upper South. Railroads and factories were changing the dynamics of American politics as well as the face of the landscape. Corruption was running amok in the halls of government with the rise of corporate America and the peddling of influence by inscrutable politicians and public officials. White supremacists had “redeemed” the social structure of the South after the Union army departed in 1877. And in the West, the free Plains Indian Wars were moving onto reservations as the great bison herds were exterminated and the “concentration policy” of the Indian Bureau forced Indians to depend on corrupt Indian agents and a fickle government for their very survival. The United States was in the heat of drastic change – a process that would only quicken with the coming century.
Nicole Etchison. Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.
Eric Foner. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
Sam Haynes. James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse. New York: Longman, 2002.
A New Constitutional Government
George Washington was elected President of this new government and appointed his former aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton as the Secretary of the Treasury. Despite his relatively humble origins, Hamilton was an elitist. He believed that the new nation’s economic fate should be tied to that of the wealthy. As a result, he got Congress to create a national bank, ¼ of which would be open to public investment, i.e., owned by the wealthy. Thomas Jefferson considered this an outrage, as did James Madison, who left the Federalist camp to join Jefferson in forming an opposition to Hamilton’s policies. Known as the Jeffersonian Republicans, sometimes referred to as the Democrat-Republicans or simply the Republicans (not the present-day Republican Party), this group spent the 1790s organizing and working to dislodge the Federalists from power.
This project was facilitated in 1798, when Federalist President John Adams pushed through Congress the Alien and Sedition Acts in an attempt to stifle dissent against his policies. The Sedition Act made it illegal to speak out or publish materials disparaging of the Adams administration. Clearly a violation of the First Amendment’s freedom of speech clause, Jefferson and Madison went to the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures (respectively) and drew up legislation to nullify these laws. In these days before “judicial review” was an accepted practice (Supreme Court ruling on the legality of legislation), the Republicans had resorted to the next level of governance to attack this violation of the Bill of Rights. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1799 employed the “Doctrine of Nullification” to nullify the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Clearly a violation of the Supremacy Clause, proponents argued that the Tenth Amendment gave them the power to do this. Since the Constitution did not provide a contingency for the federal government passing illegal legislation, that power, Jefferson argued, was left “to the states, or to the people” as per the Tenth Amendment. In addition, advocates of States’ Rights argued, since the states had created the federal government by virtue of the ratification conventions, they could nullify those actions of the federal government that violated the Constitution. This argument is known as the “State Compact Theory.” The stand-off between the Federalists and the Republicans was diffused by the election of 1800, which was won by Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans is sometimes called the “Jeffersonian Revolution.” Power changed hands peacefully, a phenomenon relatively rare in the history of the world.
Marbury v. Madison
The Federalists did not relinquish power without a fight, however. Before the new administration came in, the out-going Federalist Congress passed the Judicial Act of 1801 creating thirty or so new federal judgeships. President Adams then proceeded to fill those positions with Federalist judges in an attempt to secure the judicial branch for the Federalist political faction. The resulting court case, Marbury v. Madison, saw Federalist William Marbury attempt to serve a writ of mandamus on incoming Secretary of State James Madison and force him to deliver these new appointments, which he had refused to do. Newly-appointed Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, a Federalist himself, wrote the decision in the case which declared the Judicial Act of 1801, and the section of the Judicial Act of 1789 on which it was based, unconstitutional. In other words, the judgeships were null and void, and Madison won the case.
However, Marshall’s decision established a precedent for “judicial review” – the practice of the Supreme Court determining the constitutionality of federal legislation. Because the Jeffersonians won the case, they had to accept the decision even though they were philosophically opposed to judicial review. This is probably one of the most important cases in U.S. history, but it is important to remember that judicial review is not legally binding, but merely a precedent. On rare occasions, presidents have ignored Supreme Court decisions in the past.
Defying the Supreme Court
One such President was Andrew Jackson, elected to the nation’s highest office in 1828. Jackson had run on a platform of “democracy,” or majority rule – the first truly populists presidential candidate. As the hero of the Battle of New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812, and as a well-known Indian fighter and Indian hater, Jackson was immensely popular among not only westerners on the cutting edge of the usurpation of Indian lands, but of a rising artisan class in the cities of the eastern seaboard. “Jacksonian Democracy” was a powerful constituency comprised of these groups that represented a strong majority of voters. The celebration of his inauguration at the White House was a full-blown bash of whiskey and barbecue the likes of which had never been seen at a presidential event. Jackson saw himself as the people’s bastion against the corrupting force of wealth and power – the power of the bankers, planters, and land speculators.
It was also under Jackson that the Native Americans of the Southeast were forcibly removed from the ancestral homes and moved to Indian Territory (modern-day Kansas and Oklahoma) in the 1830s. Opposition to Jackson’s policies, mainly his anti-bank stance, led to the creation of a new political party. Called the Whig Party or Whigs, this opposition was the new generation’s version of the old Federalists in many ways. In this second “two-party system,” one can see the aforementioned historical forces of liberalism (the Whigs), and republicanism (Jacksonian Democrats). Jacksonian Democrats were an early version of today’s Democratic Party, although there is a strong thread back to the Jeffersonian Republicans as well.
Saul Cornell. The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. The Age of Jackson. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1953.
Liberalism and Republicanism
The fact that the word “contract” is used in a political construction is a reflection of the times in which Locke lived. During the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century, much of western Europe and their colonies were increasingly driven by economic forces that were relatively new to the historical stage. “Liberalism” is a term that is historically used as a reference to the capitalist economic system that grew out of the thirteenth-century Mediterranean System. Traders on the Silk Road and the Mediterranean Sea discovered the profitability of maintaining a connection between northwestern Europe and the Silk Road and encouraged individuals to invest in their ventures. Relations between individuals were increasingly of a commercial, contractual nature, and Locke’s “Social Contract” is an illustration of that.
So liberalism, in the historical sense, is a reference to expanding commerce, industry, banking, and the movement of the centers of wealth and power slowly but surely away from monarchy, aristocracy, and church and into the hands of a rising middle class. This middle class is not the same as the American middle class one finds in suburbia, for example. The middle class of historical liberalism consisted of very wealthy individuals who were not necessarily landed aristocrats, monarchs, or churchmen. The priority of liberalism is the individual’s right to pursue their own self-interest, usually meaning their economic self-interest. This definition of liberalism is not to be confused with the late-twentieth-century definition of liberalism. Economic liberalism is now often called “neo-liberalism.”
Acting as a check on the force of liberalism was the idea of “civic republicanism.” Harkening back to the Roman Senate and res publica, republicanism put moralistic limits on liberal economics. Particularly revealing in this regard is the way the English translated res publica as commonwealth. The priority in this school of thought is the “commonwealth,” or attention to the state of the community or society, rather than personal wealth. Putting the welfare of the community, state, or nation ahead of one’s own pursuit of wealth, to have a sense of duty to one’s community, is at the heart of civic republicanism. Religion can act as a form of republicanism and often did in the early U.S. Liberalism and republicanism provide a framework of historical forces which helps analyze the evolution of the United States. These forces came into conflict immediately after the American Revolution.
This is seen in the inherent conflict between the terms “democracy” and “federalism.” After the American Revolution, when the thirteen colonies of North America had won their independence from England, democracy was the dominant political force. Democracy is, of course, the basic concept of rule from the bottom up or popular sovereignty – Aristotle’s “polity.” Self-determination is at the heart of this concept. The citizens of the newly-created United States did not want their hard-earned independence compromised by centralized authority. They created a week confederation government that had very little power and no authority over the states. Many thought that a government that ruled over all the states would be too big and too dangerous. The control of the British government by moneyed interests, it was feared, would be repeated in a strong central government in the U.S.
Economic conflicts, however, brought about an attempt by the wealthy to seek control of state governments and manipulate them to their own ends. When farmers in western Massachusetts rose up against what they saw as a usurpation of power by the rich, they rebelled in an event known as “Shay’s Rebellion.” This led many of the ruling class to call for a convention where a stronger central government might be created. Federalism is the concept of a strong central government that has supremacy over the state governments that exist under it. The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 was the convention that resulted in a proposal for a federal government in the United States through a document they drafted that we now call the Constitution. Article VI, paragraph 2 of this Constitution contains what is known as the “Supremacy Clause” that codifies the supremacy of the federal government over the states.
This Constitution was very controversial at the time, and a group of people organized themselves against its ratification. Labeled by the pro-Constitution, “Federalist” press as “Anti-Federalists,” they wrote letters and spoke out against what many of them saw as a usurpation of power from the people and the states. Federalists, or supporters of the Constitution, also wrote letters in support of the document, with a group of essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay being compiled into a publication titled The Federalist Papers. There is a collection of Anti-Federalist writings as well, called The Anti-Federalist Papers.
When the states met in ratification conventions to argue the adoption of the new government, Federalists faced a hostile population who were distrustful of centralized power. In order to win enough votes for ratification, Federalists were forced to promise a “Bill of Rights” – a list of rights that would be protected by law and attached to the Constitution. This gave them enough votes for ratification, although the needed nine states (3/4 majority) to adopt the Constitution was reached without ratification by two of the largest states, New York and Virginia. The Tenth Amendment, (the first ten amendments are the Bill of Rights), was an acknowledgment of the power of democracy and “states’ rights” in the new United States. This amendment contains what are known as the “Reserved Powers” that leave any powers not specified in the Constitution “to the states, or to the people.” Many of those Anti-Federalists who grudgingly accepted the result of the ratification process continued to insist on the validity of “States Rights” – the right to individual states of a significant degree of sovereignty.
Saul Cornell. The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
C.B. MacPherson. Political Theory of Possessive Materialism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.
Forrest McDonald. Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985.
Caroline Robbins. The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthmen. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959.
This essay covers a vast amount of historical territory in a very short space, but nevertheless attempts to provide a basis on which to proceed into American history after the Civil War. There are four basic sections, the first spans the Classical and early modern era, highlighting influential developments in political thought from Aristotle and Polybius to the American Revolution. The second section starts with the Revolution and treats political and ideological issues of that event and then pursues some of the central arguments leading to the ratification of the Constitution. The third section begins with Washington's presidency and jumps to the presidency of Andrew Jackson in surveying constitutional issues relevant to the separation of powers. The last section briefly highlights critical developments in the antebellum period leading to the American Civil War. This is not a comprehensive treatment, by any stretch of the imagination. It is designed to familiarize students with a political discourse inherent to U.S. history and the historical forces involved in that discourse.
Discussion of politics in the western world invariable proceeds from the writings of the Greek philosopher, Aristotle (fl. 300 BCE). His articulation of the “three forms of government”: Rule by One, Rule by the Few, Rule by the Many, Aristotle provided the groundwork for nearly all subsequent discussion of constitutional political systems in the so-called western tradition.. In this formulation, governments invariably exist on a continuum from a benevolent to a malevolent manifestation of one of these three forms – a “virtuous” or “corrupt” form of each. The terms given to these manifestations are respectively, for Rule by one, “monarchy” and “tyranny”; for Rule by the Few, “aristocracy” and “oligarchy”; Rule by the Many, “polity” and “mob rule”. For the latter, these terms may be made more familiar by substituting “democracy” and “tyranny of the majority”. Governments that employ a combination of the One, Few, and Many are called “mixed” governments.
Polybius, another Greek who wrote about the Roman system around 100 BCE, mentioned three things that are important for this course. First, he described the Roman Senate, where representatives were sent by citizens (adult white male property owners) to deal with affairs important to the public at large. In Latin, the term for these affairs is “res publica,” or “things public,” from whence is derived the word “republic”. Second, he wrote about the Roman legal system and the rule of law, (Latin ius, iuris, s/pl) where disputes were settled in courts instead of by violence. Experts in “jurisprudence,” i.e., “lawyers,” were employed to argue one’s case. Thirdly, Polybius put his finger on the central problem inherent to western style governments and implied in Aristotle’s Three Forms. Polybius wrote that there are “Cycles of Government,” where governments seem to cycle through the three forms outlined by Aristotle. Governments, he said, seem to always be moving toward the corrupt side of the ledger, ever turning towards tyranny and collapse. A new form of government is then formed which, again, invariably moves toward corruption. This problem seems incurable, he wrote, and the inherently corrupting force of power must be checked systematically because people will always yield to its temptations. This essentially states the problem facing the colonial revolutionaries in the 1770s, the Founders of the Constitution in 1787, and for that matter any group of people trying to create a systemic governing body for themselves.
Also influential in the formation of the political discourse in the United States is the English Common Law. Sometimes called the “Ancient Constitution,” the Common Law is, essentially, a series of English legal traditions and precedents dating back one thousand years and more that define how disputes are to be resolved. Statute law in the United States, federal and state, often leans heavily on the English Common Law, particularly in areas that have long been points of contention, like water law or marriage law, for example. The Common Law is another example of political continuity between England and her former colonies.
“The Enlightenment” was a philosophical movement away from faith and the established institutions of the Church, and toward the use of science and reason in problem solving. Many well-known scientists (Isaac Newton) and philosophers (David Hume) fit into this category. But most significantly for this course are the writings of the English political theorist John Locke. In his books entitled Two Treatises on Government, published in the late seventeenth century, he writes of the “Social Contract” between a government and the people. Influenced by the notion of “Natural Rights,” which itself was probably influenced by Europeans’ views of Native Americans, he came up with this proposal to scientifically deal with the problem of corruption and government. According to Locke’s Social Contract, government was created by the citizens (again, adult white male property owners) to protect their Natural Rights, which he said were “life, liberty, and property.” If the government failed to do this, it was the obligation of the citizens to replace it. Thomas Jefferson followed this Lockean construction when he wrote the colonial Declaration of Independence in 1776. Jefferson, interestingly, substituted “pursuit of happiness” for “property” in the Declaration, which was a reflection of his sympathetic view of deism, an Enlightenment view of divinity that left much responsibility in the hands of humans (i.e., science and reason > faith and religion). The “pursuit of happiness” was seen by deists as a way to get nearer to God.
- Aristotle, Politics
- Polybius, General History of Polybius
- Walbank, F.W., Polybius, Rome, and the Hellenistic World: Essays and Reflections (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).