Tuesday, May 25, 2004

The Wrong Revolution

Last night on CNN Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) made the comparison between the founding of democracy here in the US at the end of the eighteenth century and in Iraq in the twenty-first. The senator marveled that in “a thousand days” we will have accomplished what took the Founding Fathers twelve years to do between the time of the Declaration of Independence and the ratification of the Constitution.

As Josh Marshall points out, that’s a rather gauche comparison, seeing as how we did not have an occupying power, rival gangs willing to commit suicide to prove a point, and international con men like Chalabi vying for the opportunity to set up a government.

It was not all beer and skittles once the Constitution was ratified. There was the matter of colossal growing pains as we worked out things such as the balance of power (Marbury vs. Madison), political scandal and intrigue (Aaron Burr vs. Jefferson), and an invasion by our former colonial rulers (The War of 1812). And then there is the little matter of the Civil War, one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history. It took nearly four-score and seven years before this country even formed the idea of a truly united identity instead of the loose Balkan-type conglomeration we were before.

The United States may be a shining example of democracy today, but it has taken over two hundred years for it to get to this point. Even if we compress the time using the McConnell model, it will take over seventy years for Iraq to catch up. And as Josh points out, the closest historical analogy isn’t the American Revolution, but the French.

Update: My Faithful Correspondent sent me the this e-mail as a follow-up:

May I speak to the calumny heaped on Aaron Burr? I’m reading a fascinating book by the man who ran the National Museum of American History among other things (the National Park Service and the finance committee of the Ford Foundation), Roger G. Kennedy. He frankly admits he has strong opinions, which make him something less than an orthodox historian in this instance. But the fact is, apparently, that Aaron Burr, although a member of the then republican “party” (there were no parties then, just “factions”) was, along with John Jay, a member of the New York Manumission Society. In other words, they were fervent abolitionists. Other abolitionists were Ogelthorpe of the Georgia plantations and the Scots settlers in the Carolinas. But, against them were Jefferson’s planter class who devised, supported and fought for the original concept of states’ rights. The Virginians threatened to defeat the whole idea of a nation if they were prevented from keeping their slaves and their slave trade upon which their system of agriculture had long depended. Slavery was a necessary component in all the British colonies throughout the Caribbean and the young America. As you know, Virginia extended from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean over the Alleghenies and along the Ohio River almost to the Mississippi. George Washington fought a battle near what is now Pittsburgh in 1754 at the direction of the Governor Dinwiddie on behalf of the British government of Virginia and against the French who,with help from the indians, were encroaching south of Lake Erie, and seeking a passage for trade to the Caribbean and Europe.

The now-revered Thomas Jefferson spoke and wrote eloquently of democracy all the while he was running hundreds of slaves. The western lands were important to him and his slave-owning brethren because slaves breed and the plantation owners needed additional markets for the next generation of black labor. They continued to import slaves from Africa as well and looked to the west as a way to unload them. Always looking out for his financial interests, President Jefferson tried to come to France’s assistance in helping to put down Toussaint L’Ouverture’s nascent democracy in Haiti by means of enforcing a blockade on goods produced by the “Black Republic” and starving them out. He feared that freedom might be contagious and infect his “property”. Eventually, he was stopped by John Marshall and the congress. Spain was also encouraging slave revolts in West Florida along the present Alabama coast.

As for Aaron Burr, he found to his surprise that his duel and the resulting death of Hamilton was not accepted by the general public, although duels were fought throughout the years of the early republic and before. Something in public concept of morality had changed. As a result, Hamilton was turned into a martyr even though he had provoked the duel. (That’s another story: Kennedy, along with many others think Hamilton committed assisted suicide). Anyway to compress several complicated years into a generality: Burr was forced out; he was without a job, having lost the vice-presidency, and so he began investigating possibilities suggested to him by many friends of what could be done in the Mississippi territory. He had the idea of setting up a free-soil settlement north of New Orleans. Jefferson accused him of being a traitor, of attempting secession, and had him brought to trial. Unfortunately for Jefferson, Burr was acquitted three times. Burr was forced into exile, however, and his idea of establishing a settlement died aborning. Roger Kennedy believes he has been given a bad rap and I’m inclined to agree until persuaded otherwise. John Marshall, the first Chief Justice and designer of our federal judiciary, hated Jefferson and fought to keep him from imposing his concepts of government on the nation, as it was becoming. Crucial decisions were made in those years and it’s a miracle this country was ever established as we know it.

So – you’re right. All was not beer and skittles in the early years of this nation. The battle over slavery and the rights of planters to be free to keep slaves did not just begin in 1862. It had always been a filthy undercurrent, even during the framing of the constitution. John Adams wouldn’t have been forced out after one term if slaves hadn’t been counted as 3/5ths of a person, allowing the slaveholding southerners to vote him out and Jefferson in. Jefferson legacy of “Republicanism” and states’ rights continue to this day, viz. Nixon’s Southern Strategy and all those Good Ol’ Boys running our current congress. The major portion of the voting public has no idea.