Sunday, March 6, 2011

Social & Political Philosophy: The American Revolution, Thomas Paine & The US Constitution

Now that we have examined many political philosophers writing on the subjects of government, rights, freedom, and checks and balances, it is time to examine the American Revolution, Thomas Paine and the American Constitution in light of what we have learned so far. Next time we will be looking at the French Revolution which started just as the American Revolution was concluding.

As we know, in the early 1770s the original thirteen colonies rejected British rule and banded together to fight for independence. At first, the colonies planned to remain independent of each other, but through the process of the revolution and formation of the constitution the thirteen colonies became a federal republic that agreed to a system of checks and balances much like those called for by Machiavelli, Locke and Mill. The British called the colonists terrorists and insurgents, while the colonists called themselves freedom fighters. The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, the British renounced claims to the colonies in 1783, and the Constitution was ratified in 1788 just as the French Revolution was beginning.

While Americans celebrate the Revolution and Constitution as the triumph of freedom, it is important to recognize, as we have all along in the class, that the founding fathers were not in favor of absolute democracy. They were particularly afraid of mob rule, and so like most of the thinkers we have covered so far they wished to maintain aristocratic control of the people not to mention slaves and indentured servants. In the 1940s and 1950s, the John Birch Society (a foremost supporter of McCarthy’s anti-communism hearings) declared openly that America is NOT a democracy, but a republic. Consider that America and the Soviet Union pointed at each other during the cold war and accused the other of deceptively claiming to be a government of the people for the people. Both China and America claim to be republics that represent the people. The words Communism and Democracy mean ‘of the people’, but differences aside, both have had struggles with the age-old problem of authority.

The struggles over the American Constitution and its Bill of Rights reflect this.
Because many of the thirteen colonies were afraid of joining a union for the same reasons that they were afraid of British rule, the American Constitution was an exchange of checks and balances. In exchange for the Bill of Rights, which was primarily concerned with the independence and freedom of the colonies and not of individuals as it is understood today, a strong centralized federal government was established. Today, there are still problems with this exchange. Texas, Alaska, Arizona, and other states have active movements for secession from the union due to perceived abuses and excesses of the federal government, just as the thirteen colonies participated in a movement for secession from Britain. Recently, Arizona has considered legislation that would allow the Arizona state assembly to veto federal laws. While supporters have argued that this is in the original spirit of the Constitution (state independence), others argue that this directly violates the Constitution and its imposed exchange of balanced authority (federal law and Bill of Rights trumps state law).

Locke and Rousseau were particularly influential on the American Revolution, the Constitution, and the founding fathers. Locke argued that the state must protect the individual’s right to life, liberty and property. Rousseau argued that the state must preserve the liberty of the individual or the people have a right to rebel and overthrow the government. The Americans who were reading and being influenced by these thinkers applied these ideas to their grievances with Britain and its efforts to use the colonies and its taxes to wage wars in Europe and across the globe. Notice here that right wing Americans will point to the Tea Party (as the Tea Partiers do today) and say that the revolution was about the right to property and fair taxation, while left wing Americans will point out that people today have taxation WITH representation and that the majority of taxes go to military expenses as they did for Britain in the period of the Revolution.

However one interprets it today, Americans felt that Britain was violating the social contract by not preserving the American rights to liberty and property. Remember Rousseau’s metaphor of the bandit with the gun. If someone comes up to you with a gun and demands your property, you have no obligation to tell them the truth about where you are hiding your money or duty to surrender your property. Thus, according to Rousseau’s argument for the Americans, if the British Monarchy was unjustly infringing on the rights of life, liberty and property through the use of force and intimidation, the American rebellion was not unjust in resisting the British monarchy with the use of force and intimidation. This is why the British called the founding fathers terrorists and the Americans called them freedom fighters. Consider that when the Americans defeated the British, they were left, like Britain from previous wars, with substantial war debt, and when the colonies tried to collect taxes to pay the debt there were rebellions by American citizens against the colonial governments.

While the revolution is often pictured as a brilliant transition from monarchy to democracy, it should be remembered that just like the Parliamentarians of Hobbes and Locke’s time, most still wanted a monarch in the arrangement of checks and balances. The conservative British political philosopher Burke argued that America needed a king because a country could not be ruled by a piece of paper. Many Americans agreed because they did not have, as we do today, a tradition of being ruled by a piece of paper, and it was only through the process of negotiations that led to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that America became a constitutional democracy. This then inspired French revolutionaries to cut off the head of the king and renounce monarchy as an institution.

Consider that Canada, Australia, and South Africa still officially recognize the Queen of Britain today as their sovereign, featuring her image as well as that of other British royalty on their money, while having independent parliaments. Many Americans originally hoped for just this sort of relationship with British monarchy, while others wanted to replace the British monarchy with an American monarchy (some suggesting that George Washington was a perfect candidate for the job). With the split between loyalists and patriots of the American Revolution, we see again a similar split to that between the Royalists and Parliamentarians of Hobbes and Locke’s time. This time, however, there was no restoration of monarchy, but those who leaned away from federal power and towards states’ rights like Jefferson would likely say that in part there was a restoration of the same problems and grievances.

Native Americans and African American slaves and freemen were torn in their allegiances. Both sides promised fair treatment and abolition of slavery at various times, especially to those who were enslaved to supporters of the opposite side. Some Natives and Africans felt that they could bargain with the British for greater freedom and security in exchange for support of the loyalists and monarchy against the patriot rebellion. Others felt that the independent colonies would be more favorable to their plight. Most Natives remained neutral, with some (like the Iroquois) fighting for the British with British weapons and supplies. Most free Africans fought for the colonies. The British accused the American patriots of hypocrisy in calling for freedom as a set of slave plantations, and actively encouraged slave rebellions while telling Americans that without British government the slaves would rise up and kill them. Of course, while the patriots won the war, it is certainly true that Natives and Africans did not fare so well after the revolution but it is also true that the British supported the slave trade and would not likely have treated the Natives or Africans much better.

Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man

While Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791) was composed after the revolution, in fact in response to Burke’s conservative criticism of the French Revolution which was in part inspired by the success of the American Revolution, it is an excellent expression of the philosophy behind the American patriot cause. Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809), one of the central founding fathers, was a corset-maker and author was famous during the revolution for his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense which argued that Britain was unjust and rebellion had become necessary. He later became equally famous for his work The Age of Reason which argued for freedom of thought and deism vs. institutional religion.

In The Rights of Man, Paine attacked Edmund Burke, who supported the American Revolution but suggested a king and attacked the French Revolution for beheading the king as well as the nobles. Paine argued that the institution of monarchy was outdated and enabled the violation of rights to life, liberty and property. This is a departure from the thinking of all the thinkers we have discussed so far with the exception of Thoreau who argued for the least government possible. Of course, Thoreau was writing in the mid-1800s, well after Paine. Remember that Mill was British, and stood for checks and balances without the need to renounce or dismantle the monarchy. In spite of this, America has followed Mill’s thinking in the manner of Paine and Thoreau possibly more than any other great power in history. Today, this has become a debate between right and left over social institutions and federal limits on taxes and trade. Hilariously, because of French royal support of the American revolution (to screw the British) and aversion to capital punishment, Paine argued that the French should have exiled Louis the 16th to America rather than behead him, and was later imprisoned by the radical French Revolutionaries led by Robespierre for this support of the institution both Paine and Robespierre despised. I am sure Burke found this hilarious.

One of the central issues of the text is whether or not people should choose their leaders and representatives. The monarchy, of course, is hereditary, so the people can rebel against it but cannot vote a monarch into power. While Americans celebrate the revolution as a clear transition from monarchy to democracy, consider Mill’s argument that people should vote for their bosses in business or there will be economic tyranny. Paine was a supporter of guaranteed income and thus also wealth redistribution and saw land holdings as a great source of injustice and tyranny. Paine argues that authority must arise OUT of the people, not OVER the people.

The United States Constitution

At the conclusion of the American Revolution, the colonies and power holders were fighting amongst themselves. There was massive debt from the war, riots, and armed militia who resisted centralized authority. One of the first and famous phrases from the Constitution, “in order to form a more perfect union”, refers to the fact that the colonies were already unified in their opposition to Britain but had yet to work out the details. It is only much later, with the Pledge of Allegiance, that we hear, “one nation, indivisible”.

One of the central issues was how to divide and check power in the union. Should there be a central figurehead, or not? If so, how would this avoid the problems of monarchy? If not, how would the union be preserved and how would equality amongst the colonies be maintained. How should the power be divided among the states? Should states get equal power, or should the more populated states have more say? As we know, by offering the Bill of Rights to states that feared federal control, the compromise was a bicameral congress with the House of Representatives expressing the popular vote and the Senate expressing the equal voting power of participating states. One of the famous injustices of this overall compromise was the three fifths compromise: African slaves counted as three fifths of a person for calculating the number of house representatives even though they had no right to vote for these representatives.

Another issue: how much should individual liberty be protected? Consider that, even though most of the figures we study were not offended by the institutions of slavery, some Americans wanted Rousseau-like individual freedom while others sought protections for the institutions of slavery and indentured servitude. As the reading points out, the word “democracy” do not appear even once in the constitution (as the John Birch Society was happy to point out, arguing that we are a republic, not an evil communist democracy). America, like other countries in the world, speaks about furthering democracy when in fact it should be speaking about furthering republicanism (such as that of Machiavelli). Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, who were presidents for most of the first four decades of independent America, were all slave owners.

Another interesting problem: the House has the power to bring charges against government officials, called impeachment, and the Senate has the power to convict or acquit the officials. Only seven people, all judges, no representatives, no senators, no presidents, have been convicted by the Senate. This removes the official from office, but does not send them to jail. In fact, while carrying out their duties, officials are shielded from arrest and lawsuits with the occasional exception of arrest for serious criminal acts such as murder. Consider how Rousseau would react to this, or Paine.

A last issue, consider the Bill of Rights and Freedom of Speech. Remember Mill argued that free speech is a strength and does more good than harm. The Bill of Rights says the Federal Government will not infringe on freedoms, but the states can do what they please. While these freedoms are secured at the state level today, speech that is declared a threat is not free, nor is speech on private property.