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“A Republic, If You Can Keep It”

Tom Hall: 230 years ago, a group of very disparate men, yes men, no women allowed, argued, debated, balanced interests, and then agreed on a plan to start a new nation, unlike any other that had existed in history.
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Most LA Progressive readers know who Alexander Hamilton is – that Hip Hop clown, with a powdered wig, who danced and sang his way across the New York stage and into the hearts of Americans everywhere. But that is in his dotage.

Constitution Signed

Two hundred and thirty years earlier Hamilton, age 32, was one of the members of the Constitutional Convention who signed the new Constitution on September 17, 1787. At 32, he was what we would today call a “Millennial.” Immediately after working all summer to draft the new Constitution, Hamilton worked with his friend and colleague, James Madison, to write most of the 81 Federalist Papers explaining the proposed new government to voters who would vote whether or not to ratify the Constitution.

In fact, most of the men who drafted the Constitution over the long hot summer of 1787 were of what we would call “Millennial” age. And they had been more than a decade younger when they fought in the Revolution. In 1787, James Madison was 36 as he did the work that has caused history to name him “the father of the Constitution.” Madison wrote about freedom and natural rights, even as he owned slaves – owned other people as articles of property who had neither freedom nor natural rights.

One shibboleth of popular American history is that our founding fathers accepted slavery because they didn’t know that racial distinctions are inherently untrue, from a scientific view. But that simply isn’t accurate history. The Constitutional Convention included men who owned slaves and believed in slavery, and men, like Hamilton, who had been active members of abolitionist societies, some for decades.

Even the most zealous slavery defenders at the Convention agreed to a provision ending the international slave trade eventually, recognizing that America’s “peculiar institution” was, even in 1787, out of step with the rest of the European world. And even the most zealous abolitionists at the Convention felt the new government they were creating was an important enough advance toward freedom and natural rights that they were willing to compromise on the slavery issue to avoid losing the opportunity to form a national government.

As with politicians today, politicians in the late 18th century railed against the problems caused by political parties – sometimes called “factions.” And just like politicians today, 18th century politicians created and used parties to advance their goals. George Washington’s ‘faction’ formed the Federalist Party, during Washington’s first term, to advance the concept of a strong federal government, with the ability to become an industrial and international power. Thomas Jefferson’s ‘faction’ formed the Republican Party, intent on protecting the privileges and power of individual states and attacking those who wanted a strong federal government.

Many people today long for an imagined ‘more civilized’ politics, when men in powdered wigs debated high principles and lived exemplary lives whose examples might serve as models for us all. Alexander Hamilton actually lived such an exemplary life. We know this because as George Washington’s Treasury Secretary he worked to create the first national bank, and to pay off the huge debt left from the Revolutionary War, and to create a workable system of import duties, and the Coast Guard that would enforce such duties.

For his efforts, Hamilton came under withering and unremitting attack from the Republicans who controlled Congress. Republicans sought to prove their accusations against Hamilton with an ongoing series of investigations into Hamilton’s alleged corruption and misconduct in office. And the result of every investigation Republicans launched against Hamilton was complete exoneration and vindication for him.

With each exoneration, Republicans redoubled their accusations, and repeated charges they knew to be untrue. This is not a new process, started by the Koch brothers or by Donald Trump. And the reasons in the late 18th century were the same as the reasons today – the Republicans then had no practical ideas for governance that could improve on what Federalist believers in progress and the future were doing, any more than today’s Republicans have any practical ideas for solving today’s problems.

Electoral victory in the 1800 presidential election did not fulfill the Republican Party’s dream of emasculating the federal government. Jefferson had railed continually against President Adams’ foundation of a standing army and navy. Adams wanted military strength to respond to Napoleon’s seizures of American merchant ships and their valuable cargoes. Over Jefferson’s strident objections, a navy was formed – ships built and manned.

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When he became president, Jefferson did not disband the navy. Rather, adopting the Federalist ideas, he was the first president to send that navy off to deal with the Barbary Pirates, who were also profiteering off American merchant ships. Similarly, as Donald Trump did, Jefferson campaigned on claims of corruption, but after taking office, he had to tacitly admit that his team was utterly unable to find evidence of such corruption, even with all the powers of government, and total access to government records.

On this 230th anniversary of the birth of the Constitution, it behooves those who would like to see real progress and improvements in our government, in our society, and in the individual rights of individual people and families, to look at what happened to both the Federalists and the Republicans who drafted the Constitution and founded a new type of government.

Many Federalists found it easier to fight with each other than to fight with Republicans. Opportunities for personal advancement conflicted with ideas for keeping the nation on a path of improving social justice and equality. After Jefferson’s presidential win, in 1800, the Federalist Party never again offered a serious candidate for the presidency, and faded from relevance.

As with the internecine wars in the early 20th century between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, purists in the Federalist Party could not stomach dealing with those who did not agree with them on every policy detail.

The same pattern is emerging today, as Republican ideologues squabble over power and profit opportunities, and prevent Trump from effectively advocating for his favorite policies. And the pattern repeats within Democratic ranks, with people finding it easier to attack Bernie or Hillary than to build effective policy outreach to voters who can help save the nation from the Ryan/McConnell Congress in 2018. (Will I be attacked as sexist for listing male Bernie before female Hillary, despite their alphabetical order?)

230 years ago, a group of very disparate men, yes men, no women allowed, argued, debated, balanced interests, and then agreed on a plan to start a new nation, unlike any other that had existed in history.

230 years ago, a group of very disparate men, yes men, no women allowed, argued, debated, balanced interests, and then agreed on a plan to start a new nation, unlike any other that had existed in history. Their new structure allowed political evolution that granted women the vote, and opened the door to some civil rights for black citizens.

Even today, there are many who argue that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution was illegitimate, and that blacks are not legal citizens of the individual states. Most of us laugh at them. But in our system, they are as free to believe that; as are the fundagelical preachers who tell us that women shouldn’t teach boys or men, shouldn’t vote, shouldn’t do anything without a father’s or husband’s permission.

As noisy as they are, we should remember that similar voices have been heard throughout our national history. And those voices, railing against the Irish, the Italians, all forms of Asians, and against the election of a Catholic president, have always faded into irrelevance. They do not go quietly or peacefully. They go cursing and fighting, killing people whom they fear represent the future. But they go. And they will go now as well.

But the Constitution, that “god-damned piece of paper” as George W. Bush called it, will remain, and will allow us to keep moving forward. Past Chinese Exclusion Acts. Past Jim Crow laws. Past “separate but equal.” Past racial covenants in property deeds in the ‘more advanced’ north. Past the “certain knowledge” that the Pope would control a Catholic President, and that Shari’a Law will destroy our legal system.

The day after the drafters signed off on the new Constitution, Ben Franklin was asked what sort of government it would be. His famous answer was “A republic, IF you can keep it.” The experienced businessman and diplomatic negotiator, Franklin truly knew the art of the deal. And he knew that the government imagined by a group of millennials, and negotiated into a deal that would become an international beacon in history, was only as good as its execution.

Two hundred and thirty years is longer than most governments survive. Ours has survived because people who care enough about it have put in the effort to “keep it” as Franklin said. The briefest survey of what ideas have survived, and which have fallen by the wayside should reassure progressives that, even if we do not control the media, or have the funds to hire professional agitators and thugs, it is progressive ideas that have made the Constitution thrive, evolve, and continue to serve as a beacon of what is possible, what is desirable, what is inevitable for the future, no matter how much more noise and disruption the alt-white tries to make.

Tom Hall

Tom Hall