Politics

“This is one Nation”: Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech

Posted on April 17, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 4 of our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s March 1965 “We Shall Overcome” speech demanding not only equal voting rights for black Americans, but an overhaul of American society to embrace justice. Last time, we were asking whether any voting rights law passed by Congress could really be enforced. Many pieces of legislation guaranteeing voting equality were already on the books, and gathering dust there as states went their own way and continued to deny black citizens their rights, loudly claiming that they had state sovereignty and a “special” way of life to protect.

Johnson addresses this concern as we go forward, so let’s pick that up:

[under the heading "WE SHALL OVERCOME"]

“But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

And we shall overcome.”

—Here, listeners would have wondered if they had really just heard their uptight-looking, cantankerous white Southern president quote the famous rallying cry of the civil rights movement. And had he really just said that all Americans inherit the burden and shame of racism and injustice? Again, Johnson’s insistence that racism was not a “negro problem”, an issue that trouble-making radicals kept bringing up or making up, but part of the fabric of American life and the part that needed to be ripped out and replaced, not honored and enshrined as “tradition”.

“As a man whose roots go deeply into Southern soil I know how agonizing racial feelings are. I know how difficult it is to reshape the attitudes and the structure of our society. But a century has passed, more than a hundred years, since the Negro was freed. And he is not fully free tonight. It was more than a hundred years ago that Abraham Lincoln, a great President of another party, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but emancipation is a proclamation and not a fact. A century has passed, more than a hundred years, since equality was promised. And yet the Negro is not equal.

A century has passed since the day of promise. And the promise is unkept.”

—That first sentence is enormous. It says that Johnson is proud of being from the South. That he has seen racism in the South, and the damage it does. Between the lines, but not invisible, is the idea that racism causes “agony” for its victims and its perpetrators, which may well include Johnson who, growing up in the South, likely perpetrated racism in his youth. Racism causes agony in a few ways: it forces white people to be dissatisfied with society, and to long for a whites-only world where they are unchallenged; it leads white people to believe they must commit crimes and terrible acts to bring that whites-only world into being; it forces black people to live apart from and in fear of white people; it exposes black people to the agony of death, injury, rape, and terror at the hands of racists; and finally, it eats away at the nation and our founding beliefs. It is time, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, to exit this horrible trap of racism and the endless churn, murder, anguish, and rage it produces.

“The time of justice has now come. I tell you that I believe sincerely that no force can hold it back. It is right in the eyes of man and God that it should come. And when it does, I think that day will brighten the lives of every American. For Negroes are not the only victims. How many white children have gone uneducated, how many white families have lived in stark poverty, how many white lives have been scarred by fear, because we have wasted our energy and our substance to maintain the barriers of hatred and terror?

So I say to all of you here, and to all in the Nation tonight, that those who appeal to you to hold on to the past do so at the cost of denying you your future. This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all: black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are the enemies and not our fellow man, not our neighbor. And these enemies too, poverty, disease and ignorance, we shall overcome.”

—Again Johnson invokes God, and firmly re-settles him on the side of equality rather than racism, which was a significant change of address for the Lord for many Americans. Then he goes deeper into the “agony” of entrenched racism, describing how it divides whites and uses terror on those who don’t live up to their perceived duty to keep black people down, and describing the poverty of white people in states where so much time and money and resources are devoted to keeping black people down that there is nothing left to raise poor whites up—they are told that their membership in the white race is enough for them. It was daring of Johnson to address this directly, as so many poor whites clung on to that trade-off of racial superiority in place of real security, comfort, and achievement. To blame white Southern society for this situation rather than fall back on the old yarn that the North victimized the South so cruelly after the Civil War that the South could never fully recover was a step in a new direction. Even addressing this issue was a step in a new direction: name the president who had dared to talk openly about white poverty in the South and describe its real cause.

[under the heading "AN AMERICAN PROBLEM"]

“Now let none of us in any sections look with prideful righteousness on the troubles in another section, or on the problems of our neighbors. There is really no part of America where the promise of equality has been fully kept. In Buffalo as well as in Birmingham, in Philadelphia as well as in Selma, Americans are struggling for the fruits of freedom.

This is one Nation. What happens in Selma or in Cincinnati is a matter of legitimate concern to every American. But let each of us look within our own hearts and our own communities, and let each of us put our shoulder to the wheel to root out injustice wherever it exists. As we meet here in this peaceful, historic chamber tonight, men from the South, some of whom were at Iwo Jima, men from the North who have carried Old Glory to far corners of the world and brought it back without a stain on it, men from the East and from the West, are all fighting together without regard to religion, or color, or region, in Viet-Nam. Men from every region fought for us across the world 20 years ago. And in these common dangers and these common sacrifices the South made its contribution of honor and gallantry no less than any other region of the great Republic—and in some instances, a great many of them, more. And I have not the slightest doubt that good men from everywhere in this country, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Golden Gate to the harbors along the Atlantic, will rally together now in this cause to vindicate the freedom of all Americans. For all of us owe this duty; and I believe that all of us will respond to it. Your President makes that request of every American.”

—How is it that Americans, Southern and Northern, will fight around the world for peace and justice, and enter without fear the worst maelstrom of war in human history, World War II, without a look back, and fight even now in Vietnam for freedom from Communism, but find fighting in the war against racism too hard, too doomed, too unconvincing? Is it because they don’t feel they have a mandate? Let the president offer one now.

[under the heading "PROGRESS THROUGH THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS"]

“The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro. His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety and even to risk his life, have awakened the conscience of this Nation. His demonstrations have been designed to call attention to injustice, designed to provoke change, designed to stir reform. He has called upon us to make good the promise of America. And who among us can say that we would have made the same progress were it not for his persistent bravery, and his faith in American democracy.”

—As we saw in part 2, Johnson is again saying black Americans are the true Americans. As he did earlier in the speech, Johnson says black Americans are the heroes of justice and liberty, the Minutemen of the national conscience, the lonely supporters of American ideals.  Black Americans have been carrying white dead weight for 200 years, dragging whites along the road to freedom, dealing with white crimes, lies, and selfishness along the way in hopes of achieving real democracy for all. It’s time for white Americans to get down off black Americans’ backs and do their part.

“For at the real heart of battle for equality is a deep-seated belief in the democratic process. Equality depends not on the force of arms or tear gas but upon the force of moral right; not on recourse to violence but on respect for law and order. There have been many pressures upon your President and there will be others as the days come and go. But I pledge you tonight that we intend to fight this battle where it should be fought: in the courts, and in the Congress, and in the hearts of men. We must preserve the right of free speech and the right of free assembly. But the right of free speech does not carry with it, as has been said, the right to holler fire in a crowded theater. We must preserve the right to free assembly, but free assembly does not carry with it the right to block public thoroughfares to traffic. We do have a right to protest, and a right to march under conditions that do not infringe the constitutional rights of our neighbors. And I intend to protect all those rights as long as I am permitted to serve in this office. We will guard against violence, knowing it strikes from our hands the very weapons which we seek—progress, obedience to law, and belief in American values.”

—The courts, the Congress, and the hearts of men: that’s a pretty expansive theater of war. But Johnson knows that just passing more laws that aren’t enforced in the courts, or never reach the courts because they are never put into effect on the local level, won’t help, and will even set back the cause of civil rights. In the immediate term, Johnson will uphold the rights of black and white Americans to march in civil rights protests. Remember that he is giving this speech in response to Alabama state troopers viciously attacking peaceful marchers in Selma, Alabama. Those police officers had no justification for doing that—they were breaking the law, preventing citizens from upholding the Constitution, and fostering crime. Johnson is ready to take on the entrenched force for racism that was “law enforcement” in the South and the rest of the nation.

“In Selma as elsewhere we seek and pray for peace. We seek order. We seek unity. But we will not accept the peace of stifled rights, or the order imposed by fear, or the unity that stifles protest. For peace cannot be purchased at the cost of liberty. In Selma tonight, as in every—and we had a good day there—as in every city, we are working for just and peaceful settlement. We must all remember that after this speech I am making tonight, after the police and the FBI and the Marshals have all gone, and after you have promptly passed this bill, the people of Selma and the other cities of the Nation must still live and work together. And when the attention of the Nation has gone elsewhere they must try to heal the wounds and to build a new community. This cannot be easily done on a battleground of violence, as the history of the South itself shows. It is in recognition of this that men of both races have shown such an outstandingly impressive responsibility in recent days—last Tuesday, again today.”

—Saying that the president will uphold the rights of citizens is easier than making it happen. How can Johnson really guarantee the safety of black people in Selma once federal forces are gone, and the white establishment is left alone to deal with black people as it will (as it always has)? Johnson holds out hope that people on both sides, black and white, are ready to start something new which, crucially, means that at least some white people are willing to opt out of the predictable, socially mandated retribution that would leave more black men lynched, more black houses burned, more black women raped, more black families intimidated. Maybe, at last, some people are tired of living in a perpetual “battleground of violence”, and that, combined with federal scrutiny and TV cameras, will make change possible.

In this section of the speech, Johnson spoke as an insider pulling back a thick, heavy curtain to show the world the workings of the society he grew up in. He minced no words about the necessity of racism to the Southern status quo. He intimated that he too necessarily participated in that racism growing up in the South. Next time, he will do more than intimate about his own past, and he will conclude his speech with a personal call to the nation.

 

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“The command of the Constitution is plain”: Johnson’s We Shall Overcome Speech

Posted on April 10, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , |

Hello and welcome to part 3 of our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech, delivered on live TV on March 15, 1965. Today we jump right back in where we left off in this groundbreaking speech in part 1, as Johnson moves on from his powerful re-definition of the “Negro Problem” as the “American Problem”.

[under the heading "THE RIGHT TO VOTE"]

“Our fathers believed that if this noble view of the rights of man was to flourish, it must be rooted in democracy. The most basic right of all was the right to choose your own leaders. The history of this country, in large measure, is the history of the expansion of that right to all of our people. Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult. But about this there can and should be no argument. Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.

Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes.”

—Again, Johnson is direct. (We have already shouted out to the man who wrote this speech, presidential speechwriter Richard Goodwin. He put into powerful, unafraid, and unapologetic words what Johnson believed.) Democracy exists to protect and promote individual rights, primarily the right to be governed by free consent. There is absolutely no justification for denying any citizen of a democracy their civil rights, including the right to vote. Race, the ultimate justification for discrimination, is shut down and ignored.

“Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this right. The Negro citizen may go to register only to be told that the day is wrong, or the hour is late, or the official in charge is absent. And if he persists, and if he manages to present himself to the registrar, he may be disqualified because he did not spell out his middle name or because he abbreviated a word on the application. And if he manages to fill out an application he is given a test. The registrar is the sole judge of whether he passes this test. He may be asked to recite the entire Constitution, or explain the most complex provisions of State law. And even a college degree cannot be used to prove that he can read and write. For the fact is that the only way to pass these barriers is to show a white skin.”

—Johnson would have seen all of these barriers to black voting in action growing up in Texas. They would have been accepted as necessary to the democratic process: if black Americans voted, they would vote in liberals who would change national law to get rid of Jim Crow (legal racial segregation and discrimination). You couldn’t let black citizens vote because they would vote to destroy the Southern way of life. Everyone was better off in their place, whites on top, blacks on the bottom, and so all the tricks Johnson describes were played to maintain the status quo.  But Johnson strips away this social justification, this threat of political and social anarchy, to leave racial discrimination exposed for the world to see and to judge as the primitive, tyrannical beast that it is.

“Experience has clearly shown that the existing process of law cannot overcome systematic and ingenious discrimination. No law that we now have on the books—and I have helped to put three of them there—can ensure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it. In such a case our duty must be clear to all of us. The Constitution says that no person shall be kept from voting because of his race or his color. We have all sworn an oath before God to support and to defend that Constitution. We must now act in obedience to that oath.”

—”What can I do about it? I’m just one person against a whole system”: this is the easy stand that Johnson assails next. If you see something, you have to do something. If you see injustice, you have to end that injustice. Americans have a duty not only to justice but to God himself to defend the Constitution that grants civil rights to all. God is decisively moved from the side of racism (“God made the races unequal”) to the side of equality. It’s also noteworthy that Johnson mentions his own legislation as part of the impotent failure of law to address injustice thus far: Johnson was not a man who brooked failure, and he would move heaven and earth, as most people knew, to accomplish something he wanted to see accomplished. This was the type of man who was now dedicating himself to real equality in America.

[Under the heading "GUARANTEEING THE RIGHT TO VOTE"]

“Wednesday I will send to Congress a law designed to eliminate illegal barriers to the right to vote. The broad principles of that bill will be in the hands of the Democratic and Republican leaders tomorrow. After they have reviewed it, it will come here formally as a bill. I am grateful for this opportunity to come here tonight at the invitation of the leadership to reason with my friends, to give them my views, and to visit with my former colleagues. I have had prepared a more comprehensive analysis of the legislation which I had intended to transmit to the clerk tomorrow but which I will submit to the clerks tonight. But I want to really discuss with you now briefly the main proposals of this legislation.”

—We are in real time here: there’s no misty and ill-defined future date at which Johnson will begin unspecified efforts to make sure black Americans can vote. Johnson was speaking on Monday the 15th. On Wednesday the 17th, he will have a draft law before Congress, and they will have been prepped for that by the analysis he is giving the Congressional clerk that very evening, once he’s done speaking to the nation.

Where does Johnson get the confidence to move so quickly? He had been the master of Congress during his many years there. He was a man who knew every member of Congress: knew them personally, sought them out, knew their families, their constituents, what they wanted, what they hated, who they needed to be introduced to, what they would and would not be willing to trade to achieve their goals. Johnson was renowned for turning a handshake into an intimate encounter, putting his face just millimeters from the other man’s face, gripping his arm, telling him what he had to do for Johnson, and asking him what he needed in return. When he comes now as president to “visit with his former colleagues”, they know he will drill right down to their souls from the word go.

“This bill will strike down restrictions to voting in all elections—Federal, State, and local—which have been used to deny Negroes the right to vote. This bill will establish a simple, uniform standard which cannot be used, however ingenious the effort, to flout our Constitution. It will provide for citizens to be registered by officials of the United States Government if the State officials refuse to register them. It will eliminate tedious, unnecessary lawsuits which delay the right to vote. Finally, this legislation will ensure that properly registered individuals are not prohibited from voting.”

—That’s one powerful piece of legislation. Is it really possible to create a law or a standard that cannot be perverted or denied? The only way to ensure that the law Johnson gets passed is upheld is for every American to take up its banner and get out on the streets and uphold it. See something, say something. Johnson believes we will do this.

“I will welcome the suggestions from all of the Members of Congress—I have no doubt that I will get some—on ways and means to strengthen this law and to make it effective. But experience has plainly shown that this is the only path to carry out the command of the Constitution. To those who seek to avoid action by their National Government in their own communities; who want to and who seek to maintain purely local control over elections, the answer is simple: Open your polling places to all your people. Allow men and women to register and vote whatever the color of their skin. Extend the rights of citizenship to every citizen of this land.”

—The understatement of the clause in the first sentence is classic. Johnson goes on to address the heart of the refusal to let black Americans vote (that they will elect national leaders who will force state governments to remove their racist laws) here: “those who seek to avoid action by their National Government in their own communities; who want to and who seek to maintain purely local control over elections”. Johnson does not offer these people a safety net. He flatly says there is no way forward but to give up that control over local elections.

[Under the heading "THE NEED FOR ACTION"]

“There is no constitutional issue here. The command of the Constitution is plain. There is no moral issue. It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no issue of States rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights.”

—Once more our hats are off to Richard Goodwin for writing this, and Johnson for delivering it. There is absolutely no legal justification for denying black citizens the vote. None. The old arguments about the Constitution guaranteeing states the right to conduct their own elections, about black people threatening our democracy with an ignorant vote, about some people being qualified intellectually to vote and others not being qualified—all are put into the bonfire. Nothing in the American founding principles justifies or calls for or condones racial discrimination in voting. The end.

“I have not the slightest doubt what will be your answer. The last time a President sent a civil rights bill to the Congress it contained a provision to protect voting rights in Federal elections. That civil rights bill was passed after 8 long months of debate. And when that bill came to my desk from the Congress for my signature, the heart of the voting provision had been eliminated. This time, on this issue, there must be no delay, no hesitation and no compromise with our purpose. We cannot, we must not, refuse to protect the right of every American to vote in every election that he may desire to participate in. And we ought not and we cannot and we must not wait another 8 months before we get a bill. We have already waited a hundred years and more, and the time for waiting is gone.’

—You think Johnson is going to say, “I know your answer will be Yes! Yes, I’ll get on board! I support you, President Johnson!” But we are thrown for a loop as he basically says, I know you don’t want to do this. Southerners don’t want this because it wrecks up their system; Northerners don’t want it because they are sick of racial violence in the South and want to forget about it. Johnson references Kennedy, saying if this popular president couldn’t inspire you to do this work, I know I can’t. But he doesn’t give up. He takes the nation in close, puts his face close to ours, and says into our ears, “You have to do this for me. This has to be done.”

“So I ask you to join me in working long hours—nights and weekends, if necessary—to pass this bill. And I don’t make that request lightly. For from the window where I sit with the problems of our country I recognize that outside this chamber is the outraged conscience of a nation, the grave concern of many nations, and the harsh judgment of history on our acts.”

—Again, Johnson tells us we now have a full-time job: upholding and extending the right to vote. We all just signed an employment agreement, and now we’re on the clock, no breaks, no vacations. Why? Because U.S. failure to live up to its founding ideals has torn this country apart, and inspired the disdain and contempt of the world, and while it’s too late to prevent history books from displaying our past failures, we can provide a date on which racial prejudice in the U.S. ended and a new era began: March 1965.

So we see the definition, the existence, the quality of the nation itself is in the balance here. What is more important than swinging that balance toward the good, the admirable, the American? What is more important than America being American by living up to its defining ideals? Nothing.

Next time, we will pick up with Johnson as he embraces the logic and the passion of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? – Johnson’s We shall overcome speech

Posted on April 3, 2014. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Politics | Tags: , , , , |

Welcome to part 2 of our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech, delivered on live TV to the nation on March 15, 1965. In this post, we will begin our close reading of this pivotal declaration that America was founded on the promise of civil rights for all—if not immediately, then inexorably, as time passed, and we grew wiser and more powerful in our commitment to natural rights, human freedom, and an American ideal of liberty and justice for all.

Let’s get right into it, as Johnson did that evening:

“Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, Members of the Congress:

I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.

I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.”

—Somehow the phrase “Members of the Congress” leaps out at us as more than a description of the House and Senate. We are all, as Americans, members of a congress that was and to a large extent still is unique in the world. We are a congress of nations and peoples joined together in a perpetual union as Americans. This is reiterated by Johnson’s description of us as being from “all religions and all colors, from every section”. To this Congress of Americans, Johnson speaks “for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy”; the two are inseparable, one can’t live without the other. This is a message that some Americans have always and are still trying to shut down, but Johnson is putting it in the spotlight.

“At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed.”

Connecting—equating—the white policemen in Selma with the British regulars at Lexington and Concord and with the Confederate leadership at Appomattox was daring. Johnson is very clear here: the white police of Selma fought and killed Americans trying to exercise their rights and freedoms as Americans. There is no other way to define it. They were not protecting Southern society, or Southern womanhood, or keeping down violent blacks, or maintaining law and order, or upholding the law of the land, or any of the other justifications racial violence was so constantly wrapped in by its perpetrators.

“There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma. There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans. But there is cause for hope and for faith in our democracy in what is happening here tonight. For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great Government—the Government of the greatest Nation on earth. Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country: to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man.”

—The U.S. federal government has heard the cries of its people, and is about to come to their aid. Again, the idea of an American Congress made up not of a few hundred elected officials but of all American citizens, a “convocation of this great Government” is powerfully presented. Our great Government can be summoned into action by any of its people—not just whites. And that is because its mission is to take action to ensure justice, for all. When Johnson says that the mission of the U.S. federal government is the mission of the nation itself, the founding principle and demand placed on that government and on all Americans, he, like Martin Luther King, Jr., is making a powerful argument: it is not an attack on the U.S. to criticize it for failures to provide justice for all. It is a course correction. Equal rights for all races is not some foreign idea that a few people are trying to force into American government and society, it is the original basis for that government and society. The Founders intended that rights be extended to all, over time if not immediately. The history of America is one of extending rights: the right of black men to vote, then of women to vote, then of all people over 18 regardless of race, sex, or origin; the right of interracial couples to marry, then of gay couples to marry; the right of black children to attend schools with white children, and then of mentally challenged children to attend mainstream schools, and eventually of all children to attend public schools without being hampered—the list goes on. In the U.S., we extend rights, through trial and error and argument and sometimes ferocious antagonism, to more and more people. Because that is what this nation was founded to do. That is its mission.

So to demand equal civil rights for black Americans is not some disruptive, un-American demand that the nation abandon its identity and heritage and tradition. It is the usual, necessary texture of America itself. It is what Americans do, and only those who fight to restrict rights are un-American.

“In our time we have come to live with moments of great crisis. Our lives have been marked with debate about great issues; issues of war and peace, issues of prosperity and depression. But rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved Nation. The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation. For with a country as with a person, “What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans—not as Democrats or Republicans—we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.”

—It is Johnson speaking the words, Johnson who believed in them; Johnson who would dedicate himself to the civil rights movement, and Johnson who was willing to “betray” his southern identity by standing up for black Americans, but we must take a moment to express our thanks and gratitude to the man who wrote these magnificent words that gave Johnson a platform to stand on: presidential speech writer Richard Goodwin (husband of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin; she also worked for President Johnson). Here, through Goodwin’s words, Johnson is saying that Cold War America may think its biggest problem or threat is Communism, especially in the growing war in Vietnam, but in reality, that threat is external. It does not “lay bare the secret heart of America itself”. Fighting Communism is just a way to stand up for stated American values of freedom. Fighting for civil rights, however, runs the risk of exposing our internal conflicts, our failures to live up to our ideals, our values of freedom, our inability to fully guarantee freedom at home even as we try to export it to the rest of the world. Fighting for civil rights takes the case off the watch so everyone can see the mechanisms inside that can become stuck or loose or rusty.

Civil rights is not about external threats, from Communism or an economic downturn, but about our internal health as a nation: are we who we are supposed to be? Because in the long-term, that internal health dictates our success and our national future. The greatest threat to our national security during the Cold War does not come from outside but from within. If we do not fight for civil rights, then we have no democracy to oppose Communism with. Fail to provide civil rights, and “we will have failed as a people and as a nation”, no matter what happens in Vietnam. We could, in fact, “gain the whole world” for democracy, winning the Cold War and stamping out Communism, and be in more danger than we were before, because we lost our own American soul by denying our own people their freedom. For a Cold War American president to say that fighting Communism was not the  most important thing Americans could do was astounding.

And then the magnificent, unequivocal statement: “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.” For centuries, black Americans had been treated as aliens by people and by our laws; they were not full citizens, not “real” Americans, and in demanding equal rights, black Americans were traitors who wanted to destroy the good society white Americans had built, one which gave black people a “place” in service to the superior race. Here Johnson, through the words of Goodwin, demolishes this lie. Blacks were not wrong to ask for equality, the problem is not some regional issue the rest of us don’t have to worry or care about, Northerners who journey South to join the fight are not traitorous instigators of a new civil war. There was murder in Selma a week earlier because Americans had yet to fully live up to their national mandate of freedom. Americans had failed, and Americans would find a solution—now.

“This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: “All men are created equal”—“government by consent of the governed”—“give me liberty or give me death.” Well, those are not just clever words, or those are not just empty theories. In their name Americans have fought and died for two centuries, and tonight around the world they stand there as guardians of our liberty, risking their lives.”

—Just as the white police of Selma are comparable to British regulars during the Revolution, so the black Americans they attacked and killed are comparable with every white American who ever fought and died in the name of his country. Black Americans are guardians of American liberty—this is an astoundingly bold and honest statement of fact that no previous president had made since Lincoln. Even Truman and Eisenhower, the only presidents we could say made a real effort to end segregation, and men who were personally repulsed by racism, did not go this far. Black Americans had been treated as people we should pity and do favors for, out of the kindness of our hearts. Now they were the Minutemen who rode out to risk all to protect the rest of us who stayed home. They were the men in the statues erected in memory of heroes who gave their lives for liberty. Black Americans held the torch that white Americans had tried to blow out, and, failing that, had tried to hide away.

“Those words are a promise to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man. This dignity cannot be found in a man’s possessions; it cannot be found in his power, or in his position. It really rests on his right to be treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others. It says that he shall share in freedom, he shall choose his leaders, educate his children, and provide for his family according to his ability and his merits as a human being. To apply any other test—to deny a man his hopes because of his color or race, his religion or the place of his birth—is not only to do injustice, it is to deny America and to dishonor the dead who gave their lives for American freedom.”

—Again, we are getting a radical revision of America, in which black Americans are the heroes whose memories we dare not dishonor, and the un-American way is to discriminate, the true Americans are black, and they are leading the way for the rest of us to follow.

Lyndon Johnson was not an attractive man. He was, in 1965, still seen by many Americans as a pale substitute for the man he replaced in office. His voice was a little grating, and he did not modulate his rather hectoring tone or his Texas accent. (And this at a time when wealthy Americans still faked a semi-English accent as a sign of their sophistication–watch any movie from the 1940s or 50s.) He couldn’t stand in front of the nation and assume its good will. He couldn’t assume they would be won over by his charm or his popularity. He could, on the other hand, assume that his Southern allies in Congress and in state governments would be infuriated by this speech and feel personally betrayed and attacked by an erstwhile comrade. Whatever popularity Johnson did have was in the South, and that was potentially evaporating by the sentence as he spoke on March 15.

Yet Johnson forged ahead, and we will too, continuing our close reading in the next post.

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Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech

Posted on March 27, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

March 2014 marks the anniversary of a crucially important milestone in U.S. history: President Johnson’s 1965 speech calling on Americans—white Americans—to commit themselves to voting equality for black Americans.

The Fifteenth Amendment had guaranteed all U.S. citizens the right to vote regardless of race. But the concerted efforts of whites, particularly in the South, to prevent at first black American men, and then women, from exercising that right, meant that by 1965 only about 20% of black Americans qualified to vote (that is, at least 18 years of age and a U.S. citizen) were voting. Intimidation, torture, and murder were regularly used to keep black Americans from voting. Southern states passed laws requiring black Americans to pay poll taxes and pass literacy tests to be able to vote.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which Johnson pushed through Congress with all his considerable energy and powers of persuasion, outlawed discrimination in hiring and housing, but it had little impact on the number of black Americans being registered to vote. On March 7, 1965, nonviolent, unarmed marchers protesting repression of the vote in Selma, Alabama were brutally attacked by state police armed with clubs, bull whips, and tear gas. The attack was filmed by national television crews and broadcast to the nation. It was one thing to hear about police brutality, and to speculate that it must have been justified somehow; it was another thing entirely to see young people being beaten to the ground and then kicked and beaten further, all for asking that they be allowed to exercise a right they had been granted by the U.S. government almost exactly a century before.

President Johnson was one of those Americans who watched the footage from Selma and was infuriated and repelled by what he saw. Johnson was a sincere proponent of civil rights, and he had staked a lifetime of political clout on passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Everyone expected him to back down after that, and not “push” the Southern Democrats for anything more on the race front. Instead, Johnson went on TV himself, and spoke to the nation, one week after the attack at Selma, and asked the American people to live up to their creed and ensure the voting rights of black Americans.

We’ll go through his powerful address in the next few posts, and then talk about the reaction it provoked and the legislation it enabled.

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Federalists and Anti-Federalists: what did the debates do?

Posted on March 12, 2014. Filed under: Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

In our conclusion to our series on the Federalist debates that gave us our constitution, we try to wrap up their overall impact on the U.S., in their own time, and over the centuries since 1787.

We haven’t hit all the topics of debate in this series; for example, we haven’t looked at the worthy Anti-Federalists criticisms of the Supreme Court (they balked at the idea of having an unelected, lifetime-term body that could overturn the laws of Congress as it pleased; as usual, the Federalists replied that any body in service of the just Constitution would never become tyrannical). We have also left out the demand for a Bill of Rights, which was general on both sides, Federalist and Anti-Federalist (more on that in a later series).But we have gotten a sense of the categories of debate in general: the Anti-Federalists wanted to keep government as small and, crucially, as local as possible to avoid its corruption; and the Federalists wanted to give the federal government elastic powers to meet unforeseen dilemmas in the future, as well as to control the all-too-real and familiar dilemmas the young nation was already facing.

But in a larger sense, the Federalist debates were important not for their content, but for their happening at all. After popularly elected delegates met to create a new body of national laws, the entire nation was invited to participate in the debate over their ratification as our Constitution. Every aspect of the proposed Constitution was dissected and put under the microscope, and dissenters were free to publish their dissent, their criticisms and fears, in the free press. 85 Federalist Papers were published between October 1787 and August 1788. This is a far cry from the usual press treatment of big issues today, which usually feature a flurry of intense coverage for a week or so, then a near-complete dropping off of interest. For nearly a year the nation weighed the pros and cons of the proposed Constitution and the government it would create in a public forum where no holds were barred. Then the states elected delegates to participate in ratification conventions, and in most states people thronged outside the building where the conventions met, waiting to hear what they had chosen—to accept the new Constitution or not. Over 10 months, the required 9 states voted to ratify, which the caveat that a Bill of Rights be written and added to the Constitution as the first order of business of the  new government.

This democratic process must have inspired some Americans to believe in the Federalist promise that republican virtue could be relied on  even in a large population. No one had been censored, no one arrested or imprisoned, no one lost their property or their livelihood as a result of the position they took on the Constitution. Americans must also have been inspired by the near-blinding modernity of the ideas in the Constitution, and the futuristic nation they at once created and imagined.

We have seen over the centuries since 1788 that the Anti-Federalists got a lot right; their questions about state power to counter federal power, the danger of giving any government body unlimited power to act in the name of national security, and the tendency of power to corrupt have been proven pertinent many times over. Yet we see that the Federalists’ main precept was correct: any government, even a small, local, state government, can become corrupt if people lose faith in the principles of democracy. Keeping things local is no guaranty against corruption. And we can’t rely on one segment of the population—the small farmer or, to add today’s like category, the blue-collar worker—to provide all the republican virtue. Everyone has to be raised up in the tradition and discipline of democracy. Every citizen has to be committed to upholding the Constitution. And the most committed citizens should serve in our government—not the richest or celebrity citizens. If we believe in the principles the Constitution offers, we will send people to Washington who also believe in them, and will actively uphold them in the face of temptation to corruption.

And so we leave the U.S. in 1788, with its newly ratified Constitution, and centuries ahead of it to work out the million problems old and new, expected and completely unanticipated, that would challenge the strength of that document and the commitment of those citizens. We should take with us as we go a bit of their republican virtue to solve the problems we face in our own time.

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Representation to Congress: Anti-Federalist and Federalist options

Posted on March 6, 2014. Filed under: Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Here in the second to last post in our colossal series on the Federalist debates that gave us our Constitution we look at the final large-scale thorny issue dividing Federalists and Anti-Federalists: representation to Congress.

We talked last time about the division of the Legislature into two bodies, the House and Senate, and how contentious this internal division in an already divided, three-branch federal government was for Anti-Federalists. After it was adopted, the question of how to people this Congress arose, and the debate fell out along now-familiar lines: whether members of Congress should be elected by the people directly, or indirectly, by some carefully considered elite.

Before this issue could be addressed, however, the question of how many members would be elected had to be solved. The larger states believed they should have more representation than the smaller states, and would have established a majority-rule system where might made right. Smaller states, of course, did not want to be marginalized in this way, and accused the large states of promoting tyranny of the majority. Smaller states also did not want to get locked into a small number of representatives in Congress when most of them planned on expanding west in the near-term. If they did this, and were much bigger in 1817 than they were in 1787 when their representation was set in stone, they would be large states with small representation. The large states in 1787 had the same plans to expand—when Virginia’s western border was the Pacific (as was that state’s plan), it would need even more representatives than it had been allotted in 1787.

On this issue, Anti-Federalists and Federalists were able to work together more, as the question of how many  representatives each state could send was not really about the power of the federal government, and with relatively minimal debate the Connecticut Compromise was adopted. This created a system in which each state, regardless of its size now or in the future, would send 2 members to the Senate  and one Representative to the House for every 30,000 people.

The idea of equal numbers of Senators for all states, and proportional representation in the House did not pit Federalists and Anti-Federalists against each other. But the reality of defining “proportional representation” did. Anti-Federalists pointed out the impossibility of one person capably and honestly representing the wants and needs of 30,000 people. The Federalists replied that lowering the number (1 Rep for every 1,000 people, for example) would not solve the problem of one person representing multiple constituents—any time one person represents a group there is no way that person can fully represent their wants and needs unless that group is fully united. Since it is very rare for any group to be fully united, no representative can ever do justice to that group. But as usual, the Federalists used this flaw of human nature as a strength: the one thing that can give a Representative some authority to say that he accurately represents his many constituents is elections themselves. In elections, the people are forced to choose someone they think will do the best possible job representing their basic wants and needs. Not everyone will be happy, but the majority of the people will be satisfied, and if too many people are not satisfied, then they elect someone new. Elections will also force the people to focus their wants and needs into a few main issues, on which candidates will campaign. What the people really want most will come out during election campaigns, and the person who best represents what the people think is most important will go to the House.

The Federalists also pointed out, yet again, that the growing nation would soon have so many millions of citizens that it would be impossible to have 1:1 or even 1:1,000 or 1:100,000 representation in the House. The House had to be a figurative representation of the nation; it could not be a literal one.

This argument, of course, is based on the premise that the people would vote directly for their House Representatives. Some Federalists were against this, but they knew that there was no way the Anti-Federalists, or the majority of the American people, who had just fought a war to ensure their political representation, would accept a Congress made up entirely of indirectly elected members. So the Federalists went along fairly easily with the proposal that the House would be directly elected and the Senate would not. Senators would be chosen by the state legislatures, which meant the people had an indirect voice in the process, as they directly elected those state legislators. But in reality, the legislators could choose whomever they liked, and they would ideally choose someone who seemed the most capable, and the most likely to bring honor to the state, not simply someone who was the most popular. This solution made it possible to test the Federalists’ theory that if a small elite of educated, passionately sincere and devoted republican patriots controlled the federal government, that government could never become corrupted.

The big compromise on representation at the Constitutional Convention, of course, was on slavery, not the Senate. Southern states wanted their entire population counted when it came to apportioning House Representatives, and that included enslaved people. The northern states, of course, rejected this as the sham it was—no Representative from the south was going to represent the wants and needs of enslaved people. Enslaved Americans were not considered citizens, and had none of the rights of citizens. They were governed by black codes and slave laws and the whims and whips of individual slaveholders. To pretend that the south needed Representatives for these people was to turn the whole idea of representative government into a cruel parody. The whole issue of counting the enslaved in state populations was originally about taxation, and is a different topic than we are pursuing here—though we will come back to it in the future. For now, we note this compromise, see that it is really outside the scope of arguments about the size and strength of the federal government, and close.

Next time, we will wrap up—at last!—our series with some reflections on what we can take from the Federalist debates.

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The Federalist Debate over the three branches of government

Posted on February 26, 2014. Filed under: Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 7 of what is becoming a monumental series on the Federalist debates that gave us our present Constitution. Rest assured that we’re closing in on the resolution of those debates, but for now, here we take a brief detour on the way to talking about how representation in the House and Senate was hammered out to discuss the three branches of government. (Again we are indebted to the powerhouse lectures on the Federalist debates of Dr. Thomas Pangle, UT Austin, for the flow of our series.)

The “three branches of government” is a phrase we all learn and know as Americans, and may be the one thing we all feel sure we understand about how our federal government works. There are three branches so that each can check and balance each other’s power. Ah, “checks and balances”—the companion to the three branches. No one part of the government can become too strong with this system.

But this is not really very intuitive. Why would one part of the government become too strong in the first place, and if all three branches are able to interfere with each other, why don’t you just get chaos? How can one branch operate if the other branches can check its power?

The Anti-Federalists were aware of this conundrum: checks on power is actually a kind of sharing of power. Why do the powers of the three branches overlap, Anti-Federalists asked? Why can the Executive (President) legislate with veto power, and act judicially with the power to pardon criminals? Why is the Legislature (Congress)  given judicial power to impeach the Executive? Why can the Legislature take on Executive power by giving the president “advice and consent” on treaties and other foreign policy, and by approving presidential cabinet appointees? And why does the Judiciary (particularly the Supreme Court) have the legislative power to write new laws?

Why not just have each branch do its own work, the Anti-Federalists proposed, and if we parcel out the powers between the branches correctly, there will be no problem with one branch becoming too powerful.

The Federalist reply was, again, as it so often was, based on an understanding of human nature. Human beings, they said, are combative and competitive. You can’t group humans into three branches of government and expect them to remain separate but equal. Inevitably, one branch will want to be the most powerful. Balance is very hard to achieve; that’s why you need checks. And the way to create real checks is to allow the branches to share some powers, to overlap in some ways, so that they must cooperate with each other sometimes. Knowing they have to cooperate with each other will be a counterbalance—or check—on the competition between the branches. To keep one branch from becoming all-powerful, the other branches have to have an inside track on it, some way to check its power. If the President didn’t have veto power, the Executive would inevitably become subordinate to the Legislature, as Congress would be able to ignore what the President wanted and duke it out with the Judiciary alone, because only the Judiciary would have the power to overturn laws. If Congress didn’t have the power to impeach the President, and the Judiciary had no way to check presidential power, then the Executive would begin to be dominant, and the president would become a tyrant/king.

As Madison puts it in Federalist Paper 51:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of [power] in [one branch of government], consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other — that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. These inventions of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the supreme powers of the State.

In short, one of the ways in which the new American republic was new and innovative was that it did not rely on having a perfect citizenry or government filled with republican virtue. The new American republic would work with human nature to better it. Instead of constantly trying to avoid conflict, our government would welcome it. If the very structure of our government includes, even depends on, conflict and competition between its branches, then the whole question of checking federal power is turned upside down: instead of having people outside the federal government (the states) constantly monitoring the federal government to make sure it’s not too powerful, and trying to reform the federal government from the outside to end its tyranny, the federal government will check itself. The federal government checks its own power by competing with itself, by having the three branches constantly making sure no one branch is too powerful. And as long as the three branches are functioning the way the Constitution says they should, they will not become corrupted and they will carry out the laws of the Constitution and we won’t have a problem with tyranny.

The key is that the Constitution as the Federalists proposed and wrote it laid out powers for the three branches that were fair and democratic. The only way the federal government could become tyrannical would be if its branches did not obey the Constitution. That would not happen, the Federalists said, with each branch being forced to obey the Constitution by the overlap of powers with other branches that would come down hard on each other if one started to get too powerful. No one branch’s members would sit back while another branch got more powerful. Thus constant competition means constant checking of power which means constant obedience to a just Constitution.

Dividing the Legislature into two bodies, the House of Representatives and the Senate, was an example of this. The biggest worry for both Federalists and Anti-Federalists (though Federalists worried about it more) was that Congress was most likely to become tyrannical because a) it was the only branch that could make laws, and b) it was the branch that the people had direct control over (remember that the Electoral College takes precedence over the popular vote in a presidential election, so electors chosen by the few, and not the common people, ultimately decide, to this day, who becomes president). The House was particularly troubling: the Constitution proposed that each state have two Senators, but the number of Representatives would be based on population, and was bound to soar past the number of Senators. Even in 1787 it was very clear that one day the U.S. House would have hundreds and hundreds of members. The House, therefore, was most vulnerable to becoming tyrannical. It would be the largest branch of government, and it would be directly elected by the people, who would never agree to its power being checked because that would be their power being checked.

So the Congress was divided in a way that satisfied the people’s demand for direct representatives (House) but also allowed a smaller body (Senate) the power to overturn House rulings. Bills generally originate in the House and then go to the Senate. The entire House might approve a bill, all 435 Representatives might vote yes, but if just two-thirds of the 50 Senators vote against it, the bill is dead. The people’s voice is heard in the House, but the voice of that educated elite, the most virtuous republican citizens who devote themselves to public service, ultimately calls the shots.

The only way for the House to get its way is to—you guessed it—cooperate with the Senate, to check its own power and work out a compromise the Senate will accept. What keeps the Senate, then, from becoming the tyrannical branch? Bills don’t aways originate in the House, so when the Senate passes a motion that goes to the House and is rejected, then the Senate has to compromise. But since most bills do originate in the House, the more common way of checking Senate power is that Senators don’t want to be seen as always contradicting the people’s voice (as represented by the House), and so will find ways to compromise with the House rather than constantly shoot it down.

With the Legislature divided and set in competition with itself, the fear that the Congress, especially the House, would become tyrannical was allayed. With its basic structure out of the way, now we can address the question of how the House and Senate would be composed so that they would fairly represent the American people… and what the definition of “the American people” should be.

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The Federalist vision of the American Republic

Posted on February 19, 2014. Filed under: Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

In part 6 of our series on the Federalist debates that gave us our Constitution, we rebound off the Federalists’ weak attempts to claim that the federal government they envisioned could indeed have its power checked by the states (which was not really true) to their more powerhouse vision of what a modern, American republic would really mean.

We, like the Federalists, have looked at the traditional republics of antiquity and seen that they were all very small geographically, very dependent for their success on the civic virtue of their citizens, and, perhaps consequently, very short-lived. The Anti-Federalists worried that the United States was already far larger geographically and population-wise than any previous republic, and that any central, federal government would necessarily be far removed, physically and spiritually, from the heart of the people—the farmer. Anti-Federalists said that the honest, virtuous yeoman farmer was and should be the backbone of the nation, because he could be counted on to do the right thing (the merits—or lack thereof—of this dubious argument can be set aside for now). The whole point of government should be to educate the people in civic virtue by giving them local government they could be actively involved in. That could not happen in a federal state, especially one where the states had no right to check the power of the federal government. What you want in a republic, the Anti-Federalists said, is all the people involved in all the government all the time, united in their virtue and commitment. And in this argument, they were backed by historical opinion.

The Federalists rejected this. Instead, they offered the world a radical new definition of a republic. Direct popular rule, they said, is exactly what you don’t want in a republic. Why? Because whenever human beings gather together, they fight. It’s just human nature. People break into factions. They group together, united by some common interest they discover or invent, and then they want to push their own agenda, gaining more rights for themselves at the expense of the common good in general, and the “them” they see as threatening them in specific. This “us against them” mindset is unavoidable in human society. And it leads to one thing: tyranny of the majority.

We’ve discussed this concept in several places on the HP; here, the thing to focus on is that the classical republican ideal of a populace united in virtue is a complete fantasy, according to the Federalists. No population is ever going to be united, for a good or a bad goal. It will break into factions and each faction will attempt to impose its way on the others (tyranny). And even if the majority of the population is in one faction, it’s still wrong, the Federalists insist, for that majority to impose its will on others (tyranny of the majority). As we put it elsewhere, this tyranny of the majority:

…ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public. Slavery is a good example. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans and white abolitionists were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools, for various reasons. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation. In each of these examples, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice, which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.

Faction, the Federalists say, will always trump the goal of a united populace. So what do you do to get real democracy? You avoid direct rule and embrace faction.

Here’s the argument: work with factions, don’t try to suppress them with an education program to create virtuous citizens, because that will never work. Instead, embrace all the problems the Anti-Federalists see with creating an American republic—the large size of the nation, representatives working far away from their constituents, farmers not having time to travel to a far away central government. All of these things will make a new kind of republic possible. First, the large size of the nation means that many diverse people will populate the country and it will be hard for them to join together to make large factions that threaten tyranny of the majority. The large size of the nation also means that if a faction does gain traction in one region, it will likely remain in that region—it won’t spread, because the factors in its region that promoted its growth won’t be found in other regions. And in a large nation, representatives will be physically far away from the people, and that’s good because it keeps them away from the pressure of the mob, from factions banging down their doors.

And in our large nation, members of Congress will have such diverse constituencies that they will have to compromise in order to try to satisfy as many people as possible (something that gerrymandering was quickly invented to remedy). But even with gerrymandering, this did work for many decades: one great example is slavery. The two main American political parties of the first half of the 19th century, the Whigs and the Democrats, were evenly and equally represented North and South. There were no red or blue states—each region had Whigs and Democrats. Because of this, few politicians could take a bold stance on the divisive issue of slavery, because politicians North and South knew that they had pro- and anti-slavery constituents. And so there was compromise on slavery, from the big compromises we all know, like the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, to many smaller ones. Only a few people, like John C. Calhoun of South Carolina or Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania had unified enough constituencies to take hard-line stances on slavery (Calhoun for, Stevens against).

Now, we regret today that slavery was ever an issue of compromise, but those compromises did prevent a civil war from breaking out in, say, 1820, when it would have been even more devastating to the young, unstable nation than it was in the 1860s. And we see that as the sections (North and South) became more polarized throughout the 1850s, the Whig party disintegrated, its Northern members unwilling to compromise over slavery and leaving to join the antislavery Free Soil or Republican parties, and the Democratic party became a South-only party, completely devoted to promoting and protecting slavery and nothing else. The Democratic party was able to exercise tyranny of the majority over the other parties for many years because of its unity, its factional devotion to one “us against them” issue. And so the civil war came.

So the Federalists argued that faction could be controlled by sheer size, on the one hand, but also by virtue, on the other. Yes, Anti-Federalists, there is still need for citizen virtue, said the Federalists, but instead of all the citizens needing to be ideal people who rise far above human nature’s need for tyranny and faction, only a few citizens need to do that. First of all, only a few citizens really can do that, said the Federalists, people who are well-educated and devoted to justice. If we urge our best people to go into government, then not only will our government be good, but the average person will respect their leaders and their government, and will give up some of their factional mob nature and support both instead.

In a way, the federal government in this vision of a republic is like a Play-doh fun factory: the misshapen mass of factional mob demands are fed into Congress, where members of Congress shape them into good laws by focusing on what is best for the people. In go irrational, factional demands, and out come good laws. And those good laws will inspire and educate the people, and make them less factional. So public virtue does not rise from the ground up, but moves from the top down.

This was indeed a vision of the republic that was completely new. It turned classical republicanism on its head. It said that allowing the people direct rule was just a way to make sure that their destructive factional demands destroyed their government. The Federalists said that removing the government from the destructive impulses of the people was the best way to improve the people over time.

It seems clear today that the Federalists were right to dismiss the Anti-Federalists’ devotion to the classical ideal, which was based on a fantasy version of heroic farmer politicians who would never do wrong, all citizens having direct control over government, local governments that would never become corrupted, government devoted to educating its citizens rather than governing them, and sovereign states united by ties so weak that any conflict could dissolve them.

Next time we’ll look at the arguments over representation to Congress. If that one body was going to house the powerful federal government, and somehow represent all citizens fairly, it was going to have to be composed fairly, out of a huge population. This would be no easy task. In fact, before representation could even be discussed, the structure of Congress would have to be argued out.

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Does the Constitution allow the states to check Federal power?

Posted on February 12, 2014. Filed under: 17th century America, Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Part 5 of our series on the Federalist debates that gave us our Constitution takes us up to the wrangle over whether that proposed document gave the states  any real power to check the power of the federal government. As we saw in part 3, the federal government was given unlimited power to tax the states by the draft Constitution, in the name of national security. Anti-Federalists, and even some Federalists, were uncomfortable with this power. The Federalist idea was that the federal government would only tax the states heavily during times of war, and even then it would be forced to put any tax measure up for renewal every two years, so that Congress would have a chance to remove an unfair tax.

But Anti-Federalists argued that relying on a branch of the federal government (Congress) to check the power of the federal government was illogical. Congress would have to vote to check its own power to tax, and why would it? Who gives up their power like that? It would be unlikely that Congress would be that self-disciplined and have that kind of integrity.

The Federalist shot back that Congress was made up of representatives of the states. So if “Congress” was committing a crime, it was really the states committing it, because the people voted for their Representatives, who then voted (at that time) for their Senators. Elect good members of Congress and you won’t have to worry about Congress hurting the states. What happened to your faith in “republican virtue”, Anti-Federalists? The common people you see as so virtuous and protective of liberty will elect their own people to Congress, so there won’t be a problem.

The Anti-Federalists repeated their argument that any representatives who had to travel to a faraway federal government would eventually, inevitably, become corrupt, and put their own power and glory ahead of the people’s liberties. And when that happens, the states are left with no way to check federal power with the Constitution we currently have.

The Federalists tried to swagger through this argument, saying that the state legislatures had many ways to check federal power. Now, this was and is not true—the Constitution does not give the states any power to block federal legislation. It was just another version of the “republican virtue” argument, and the Federalists knew it. When the Anti-Federalists pointed this out, the Federalists responded with a shocking argument, in Paper 46.

First, they said, members of Congress will always put the states first:

“It has been already proved that the members of the federal will be more dependent on the members of the State governments, than the latter will be on the former. It has appeared also, that the [interests] of the people, on whom both will depend, will be more on the side of the State governments, than of the federal government… whilst it will rarely happen, that the members of the State governments will carry into the public councils a bias in favor of the general government. A local spirit will infallibly prevail much more in the members of Congress, than a national spirit will prevail in the legislatures of the particular States. Every one knows that a great proportion of the errors committed by the State legislatures proceeds from the disposition of the members to sacrifice the comprehensive and permanent interest of the State, to the particular and separate views of the counties or districts in which they reside. …For the same reason, [the] members of the federal legislature will be likely to attach themselves too much to local objects. …Measures will too often be decided according to their probable effect, not on the national prosperity and happiness, but on the prejudices, interests, and pursuits of the governments and people of the individual States.”

That is, just as members of state governments care more about getting benefits for their districts than they care about doing things for the good of the whole state, so members of the federal government will always be pushing their individual states’ wants and needs rather than trying to do good for the nation as a whole.

This is an odd argument for a Federalist to make: the Paper is saying that the federal government will never really benefit “national prosperity and happiness, but the prejudices, interests, and pursuits” of the states. So why have a federal government at all?

This question is begged as the Paper goes on:

“…should an [unfair] measure of the federal government be unpopular in particular States, which would seldom fail to be the case, or even a [fair] measure be so, which may sometimes be the case, the means of opposition to it are powerful and at hand. The disquietude of the people; their repugnance and, perhaps, refusal to co-operate with the officers of the Union; the frowns of the executive magistracy of the State; the embarrassments created by legislative devices, which would often be added on such occasions, would oppose, in any State, difficulties not to be despised; would form, in a large State, very serious impediments; and where the sentiments of several adjoining States happened to be in unison, would present obstructions which the federal government would hardly be willing to encounter.”

In other words, if the federal government passes a law the states don’t like, they can just refuse to obey it, and embarrass the government. This is hardly an argument that will convince the American people to vote Federalist. Again, why have the federal government if it cannot–even should not–control the states and make them obey federal law?

It only gets worse:

“But ambitious encroachments of the federal government, on the authority of the State governments, would not excite the opposition of a single State, or of a few States only. They would be signals of general alarm. Every government would espouse the common cause. A correspondence would be opened. Plans of resistance would be concerted. One spirit would animate and conduct the whole. The same combinations, in short, would result from an apprehension of the federal, as was produced by the dread of a foreign, yoke; and unless the projected innovations should be voluntarily renounced, the same appeal to a trial of force would be made in the one case as was made in the other. But what degree of madness could ever drive the federal government to such an extremity?”

Yes, the Federalist Paper is saying that if the federal government passed enough laws considered to be assaults on states’ rights and individual liberties, the states can just revolt. There can be a civil war, and the United States government can be overthrown as if it were a “foreign yoke”. (This argument, by the way, would be dredged up in 1860-1 by Southern states to justify secession, saying that it was legalized by the Constitution.)

So the power given to the states by the Constitution to check the federal government is resistance to and war on the federal government. This is hardly a system of checks and balances; it is a system of obedience or war. The Paper wraps up thus:

“The argument… may be put into a very concise form, which appears altogether conclusive. Either the mode in which the federal government is to be constructed will render it sufficiently dependent on the people, or it will not. On the first supposition, it will be restrained by that dependence from forming schemes obnoxious to their constituents. On the other supposition, it will not possess the confidence of the people, and its schemes of usurpation will be easily defeated by the State governments, who will be supported by the people.

On summing up the considerations stated in this and the last paper, they seem to amount to the most convincing evidence, that the powers proposed to be lodged in the federal government are as little formidable to those reserved to the individual States, as they are indispensably necessary to accomplish the purposes of the Union; and that all those alarms which have been sounded, of a meditated and consequential annihilation of the State governments, must, on the most favorable interpretation, be ascribed to the chimerical fears of the authors of them.” [emphasis added]

So the Anti-Federalists’ fears that the federal government will crush the state government is wrong—state governments will actually crush the federal government. How the federal government can be strong enough to hold the states together in a union, and represent them as a nation to the world, while being at the same time too weak to impose its own laws on the states for fear of civil war and disunion is a riddle.

The Federalists knew this. They tried in several Papers to address the problem that the states cannot check the federal government, but the truth was that in our Constitution they cannot, and secession and civil war are not sanctioned by the Constitution, while state obedience to federal law is sanctioned, and despite the protests to the contrary in Paper 46, if the states did try to secede the federal government would use military force to bring them back, as it did in 1861.

The Federalists wanted a strong central government, and they did not believe that it would inevitably become corrupted. They backed the radical experiment of federalism over the morass of confederation, and really did not have any way to prove to the American people that the federal experiment would work and the confederate experiment would not. They asked the American people to take it on faith that they could trust their federal government, and moved on, as we will, to their own vision of republican virtue.

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Federalists and Anti-Federalists: which one really wanted a Union?

Posted on February 5, 2014. Filed under: American history, Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 4 of our series on the Federalist debates that gave us our Constitution. Last time, we looked at the Federalists’ conception of national security and how it demanded a strong centralized government with unlimited power of taxation. Here, we look at the Anti-Federalist reaction to this vision, and how it led, oddly, to accusations on both sides that the other side did not really want a United States.

The Federalists had the obvious position: the Anti-Federalists’ insistence on sovereign states wielding state militia to defend themselves was, the Federalists insisted, a clear sign that the Anti-Federalists did not really want a union. They weren’t really committed to joining together with other states to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. What the Anti-Federalists really wanted, said the Federalists, was for each state to eventually go its own way and exist as an independent republic.

The Anti-Federalists’ accusation of disunion was more subtle: in their insistence on a national security state, the Federalists themselves undermined the idea of a union by taking away citizens’ rights in the name of defense. The Federalists would tax indiscriminately, and likely impose other burdens impossible to even think of at the present time, and take away all the freedoms and all the political participation of citizens that define a republic. The Federalists would create an oligarchy in all but name.

In their argument, the Anti-Federalists were touching on an issue that actually worried the Federalists, too: republics in history had always been very small. They had to be small, reasoning went, because everyone had to be able to participate, and if you had a huge population that would be impossible (what building could hold them all in a Congress?) and if you had a large geographic footprint that would also be impossible (you would be forced to impose a random central point where the government would exist that would necessarily be far away from most of the people). The United States already had the huge footprint—just the 13 states together were much larger than any previous republic, or any previous kingdom, for that matter—and the population was bound to grow to match it. Even the individual states, as Federalist Alexander Hamilton pointed out, were already each much larger than any previous republic. Only Rhode Island was close to the small size necessary for republican government. Every other state in the Union would have to be broken up into smaller states to be true republics.

This endless splintering would spell the end of trying to create a Union. The component pieces would be so small they would feel no need to give up their government to someone else, and would only create treaties with neighboring states, for trade or for mutual protection. And if there were 39 states in the geographic area that had been occupied by just 13 states, what would happen as the U.S. expanded across the continent? You would end up with hundreds, even thousands of states, and no federal government could hold all their delegates.

While this argument made the Anti-Federalists doubt whether Union could or should be attempted, it galvanized the Federalists to argue for something that has become familiar to us today, but was new then: American exceptionalism. The United States was not like a republic of the distant past, they said. The U.S. is not ancient Greece. The U.S. is a modern republic, and it can make its own rules—it can update the definition of republic, or even redefine it. Look at those past republics, Hamilton and Madison said: they all failed. They didn’t even last very long. So why are we supposed to follow their rules? America is all about new ideas, new ways of doing things. Look at our Declaration of Independence, they said; it is the first of its kind. We are creating a new government from scratch to meet new conditions and new possibilities, in a new world of modern Enlightenment ideas. Why should we be bound by Iron Age thinking?

The Federalists acknowledged that there would be trial and error in this approach, but they made the case that the rewards were worth the risk. Let’s bind a huge landmass into a republic, they said, and find a way to represent all the people and give them an active political role nationally and locally. Let’s expand to fill this North American continent and still remain a republic. Let’s become a republic of millions. Let’s redefine what it means to be a republic, and make a new government for a new time and place.

This was an exciting argument for many Americans, but it smacked of recklessness to others. It also failed to satisfy the questions about national security—what was so new and exceptional about a government with unlimited power to tax its subjects? Isn’t that the definition of a monarchy, or a dictatorship? And what are our guarantees that a central government with that kind of power won’t unilaterally change the Constitution that gives the citizens their rights? In the end, are we re-defining republicanism, or abandoning it?

Next time, we’ll see how prescient the Anti-Federalists were about that.

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