The Long Argument About America

Much of the past year I’ve been puzzling over American polarization. Where did this angry, obstructionist eruption come from? Why does Obama frighten people so much that they feel entitled to call him a socialist, a Muslim and a racist who is eager to inaugurate death panels? I don’t underrate the force of high unemployment in creating desperate, angry feelings. Nor do I underestimate the force of partisan politics. But I’ve felt that something deeper is at play.

(No, sorry, I don’t buy the explanation that it’s a reaction to Obama extremism. While Obama believes in an activist government, he’s chosen a cautious and moderate course at almost every point. That’s why his core liberal supporters are so disappointed in him.)

In reading Joseph Ellis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Founding Brothers I’ve found some helpful clues. Ellis says the Founding Fathers held two interpretations to the meaning of America: the Spirit of 1776, which put the emphasis on individual liberty freed from governmental tyranny, and the Spirit of 1887, by which the colonies chose to unite under a single, centralized republican government. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence with its emphasis on personal freedom, led most Virginians in maintaining a very deep suspicion of the federal government. (He had been in France when the Constitution was written and ratified.) Washington, Hamilton and Adams held a very different vision, formed by their experiences with the Continental Congress. They thought that America could never fulfill its destiny without a mechanism for making decisions that everyone would obey.

For Jefferson and his Republicans, the emphasis on getting things done nationally—represented by Hamilton’s plans to set the national economy on a solid basis and to found a national bank—was treason against the revolutionary vision. It threw away the most precious achievement of the Revolution—throwing off tyranny so that the individual farmer could get on with his life in the way he wanted to, uninfluenced by governments or national laws (or banks or financiers).  The positive achievement of America, as they saw it, was the removal of coercive authority.“The only legitimate form of government, in the end, was self-government.” (p.139)

Washington and Hamilton’s vision of liberty was more complex. It involved the positive capacity for doing something worthwhile as a nation. For them, this meant exploiting the vast potential of the wilderness that stretched westward. That required an activist government, to create national financial markets by setting national rules and clearing off debt, to dig canals and build roads.

“Underlying the debate… over Jay’s Treaty lurked a classic confrontation between those who wished America’s revolutionary energies to be harnessed to the larger purposes of nation-building and those who interpreted that very process as a betrayal of the Revolution itself.” (p. 145) The debate grew very nasty, with Jefferson’s Republicans sincerely convinced that George Washington was senile and that the government had been captured by a Hamilton-led cabal intending to proclaim a hereditary monarchy and rejoin the British empire. Jefferson and Adams had worked closely together for a generation, achieving great things in Boston, Philadelphia and Paris, but the polarization of opinion on these contrary visions of America soured them on each other completely, to the point where they regarded each other as monsters threatening to betray all that American patriots had fought for.

Notably, both sides found their vision clearly expressed in the United States Constitution. Jefferson and his followers were fond of declaring Washington’s assumptions of governmental power unconstitutional. Washington and Hamilton thought that “forming a more perfect union” absolutely required governmental power—that was the Constitution’s starting point. Both sides had a case. The Constitution is a compromise document, with many issues fudged, and especially those issues of the powers of the central government.

This conflict between central and dispersed power, between the federal government and the states, between a communal politic and individualism, carries on to our own day. To those currently in power it is simply obvious that something needs to be done: the broken health care system needs fixing, the markets need re-regulating, the economy cannot be allowed to completely collapse while the government stands by. Greenhouse gases need curtailing lest we turn the planet into an oven; a new energy economy needs prodding into action. For those who want to do these things, the opposition is a puzzle. If you have other ideas for action, they say, bring them forward. We can figure it out together.

But for their opposition, heirs of Jefferson, nothing needs fixing except the monarchical pretensions of government. They want liberty, and they are quite willing to take their chances with no regulations, no interventions, no “fixed” health care system. For them, any serious attempt to fix things at a federal level represents a betrayal of what they believe America is all about.

Ellis helped me understand that this argument has continued all through the history of America. Should an activist, centralized, capable government “fix” things? Or should the government get out of the way and leave individuals and local communities to fix things in their own way? My mindset is more with Washington and Adams. Certain things need doing, and only the federal government can do them. That is how we built the interstate highway system, for example, sometimes riding roughshod over local communities and property holders.

However, I have to acknowledge that Jefferson’s party contributes another facet of America’s greatness: its restless, anarchic, permissive faith in the individual’s right to do whatever he wants to do. It’s distinctively American, and as a child of the sixties I cherish it.

The irony with Jefferson is that once elected president he found his political principles needed trimming. In particular, when he had the option of the Louisiana Purchase, he bought the land without scruple even though he had only recently believed that the federal government had no such powers and that such an action would be flagrantly unconstitutional. So it is with most ideological principles:  we trim to fit the circumstances. But the larger argument continues.

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One Response to “The Long Argument About America”

  1. RD Says:

    This is a great post. I enjoyed reading it very much. Personally, I think the reason America has “worked” and continued to prosper is because of BOTH ideologies. There’s no question that individualism can lead to great breakthroughs in innovation and business, and often government intervention can hamper this. It seems to me that the long history of our country sways back and forth between both ideas. We go through periods like the industrial revolution which propels the nation economically but which also reveals underlying social problems (workers rights, wage issues, child labor abuses etc). At those moments, “central govt” proponents take the helm and reel us back in. As govt becomes inevitably too big and intrusive, “free marketeers” end up taking charge again and we see another stage of growth and innovation and prosperity.

    All this to say, the wisdom of allowing open debate, multi party political systems, free press, etc act as “national ballast” ultimately keeping the nation on course and moving forward, in the long term. In the short term, however, the ride can get pretty bumpy.

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