Wednesday, July 4, 2012

4 Things All Americans Should Know Part 1

For this special post I am letting the historian side of me take over. I can't help it.  My focus is on American civil disobedience, and the event which this day celebrates is the ultimate act of protest.  So please bear with me as I do what I swore I wouldn't-- use this blog to teach you something about history.

As fun as barbecues & parades & fireworks are, they have little to do with why we celebrate the 4th of July.  Americans should know {please, please, say you know} that the 4th commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence -- a document circulated through the colonies during the summer of 1776 that announced a rebellion started by radical dreamers determined to live out the promises of the enlightenment had turned in to a revolution & eventually a new nation. If you are American, & if you have not already read it, please do.  Go ahead, it sort of matters...we'll wait.

And here's a link to the rough draft
The declaration was ordered written a few months prior, when the shadow government known as the Continental Congress, inspired by the fiery rhetoric & shocking popularity of the pamphlet Common Sense asked a small committee of 5 men to whip something up to be debated when the Congress met again in July. It fell to the young lawyer, Thomas Jefferson, to write the letter-- a list of reasons why it was acceptable, and indeed just and necessary, for the little colonies to revolt against the largest empire in the western world.
There are plenty of things I could tell you about the Declaration.  I could tell you how Jefferson agonized over it in isolation, writing, editing & re writing pages to be sure it said exactly what it should.  I could tell you how the original included a paragraph denouncing slavery as a symptom of the evil of the colonial system, and how, when the final copy was brought before the Congress, South Carolina & Georgia refused to sign unless that paragraph was removed {and how vexed Jefferson was that the Congress would alter his masterpiece}. I could mention that Jefferson asked that his writing of the Declaration be included on his tombstone, but asked that his tenure as President not be mentioned.  Or how, as he lay dying, he asked "Is it the fourth?" and upon finding that it was, he breathed his last.  Or how John Adams died the same day, same year, within hours of Jefferson's passing....but I won't ;)


Instead, I am going to share 4 things I believe every American should know about the founding of our  nation.  Contrary to popular belief, history is not subject to interpretation.  It is what it is-- we can't change it to suit our current political climate or social perspective {an idea that originated with the modern media & the overuse of a few quotes taken out of context}.  Yes, its true, that events can appear very different depending on who is doing the viewing-- the Civil War looked different to a slave owner than it did to a slave-- but the event itself does not change.  Why it happened, when it happened, where & who are all facts that lay outside the sphere of speculation.  And there are things we, as good citizens, should know.  
After all, its hard to be patriotic & love your country if you have no idea what your country is all about {although a frightening number of rather loud people manage to do just that, or at least, they think they do}.
Because this is going to take a while, and because, to my horror, some people find history boring, I'm going to do this in two posts: Points 1 & 2 today, then 3 & 4 sit back, grab another cup o'joe and prepare to learn something~*

1.  Taxation without Representation does not mean that Americans fought the Revolution because they hated taxes-- in fact, nearly the opposite is true.

I do not think it means what you think it means...
Actually American colonists paid rather high taxes, & the taxes King George III proposed would have been a sizable decrease.  So what was the problem?
Until King George III was enthroned, none of the monarchs of England cared too much about what happened in the colonies-- for all intents and purposes they used the colonies as a dumping ground for undesirables.  Governorships & political positions in the colonies were handed out in Europe as prizes for good behavior-- but very, very, very few of those so titled actually came to the colonies to rule.  Instead, colonies elected trusted men of all ranks {including, in several instances, African Americans} to govern from colonial assemblies.  It was those assemblies that levied taxes on the colonists, and decided, on behalf of the colonists, where that money was to be spent.  Colonists could petition the assemblies for assistance, or suggest where the money would be best used, or even protest what they thought was a bad decision.
In all the great cities of Europe, homelessness & extreme poverty were a horrible problem-- so bad, in fact, that one solution employed by England was to round up the poor and send them to the colonies, sometimes as indentured servants, sometimes as slaves, & more often than not, as criminals from the debtor's prison.  So, to the tourist's mind, when one arrived to tour the colonies, they ought to see a bunch of lazy, stupid, poor folks, right?  Yet European visitors to the colonies wrote home about the shocking lack of poor folks lying about the cities & villages of the colonies.  How could that be?  
The colonial assemblies used a large part of the tax money to assure that there were no poor.  Newcomers to the colonies were welcomed in, and if needed, given assistance to get started.  Businesses were supported.  Houses were built.  Education was provided.  Books were imported.  Barns were raised.  All funded by the colonial assemblies using taxpayer funds.
What outraged the colonists about King George's proposed tax was not the tax itself-- it was where and how the tax money would be spent.  Unlike the taxes levied by the assemblies, George's taxes would be raised in the colonies but spent in England, without the colonists input.  If the colonists merely objected to taxes, thats what they would have said, "No Taxes."  But they didn't say that.  They said "No Taxes Without Representation."  Meaning, tax me only if I get a say in where the taxes go-- which is what Americans have today.  So the phrase printed on the above poster board is moot-- we do have representation, its called Congress. And if you don't like where the tax money is spent, elect a different person to Congress-- which brings us to the next point...

2.  Political Parties were not part of the Revolution or Constitution, & most of the founders of America hated them with a passion.
The idea behind the Constitution was that Americans would care, would take a passionate interest  in government, and be altruistic and unselfish and generally happy to help others be happy.  Hence Jefferson's use of  "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" instead of "life, liberty and property" as John Locke had originally written .

That's right, the founding fathers were hippies, man
As part of this idealism & optimism, the founders believed that voters would elect the person best representing their areas unique needs.  Then, each of these specially chosen representatives would, you know, represent.  Their allegiance and loyalty would lie with their electorate, not some national political party with its own selfish, power-driven aims.  It was the only way the founders believed, a democracy could survive.  {I know, we are a Republic.  Sigh.  If I had a penny for every time one of my students played "gotcha" by pointing this out.  But the problem with this cleverness is that a Republic is, in fact, a form of yeah, we are a democracy}.  These carefully chosen representatives would get together, argue, debate and compromise & the wheels of democracy would turn as they should. {more on the whole compromise thing tomorrow}
So what happened?
Alexander Hamilton got caught in a sex scandal, that's what.
Hamilton did not trust democracy, and had advocated for a monarchy at the Constitutional Convention.  Despite his ideas being shot down, he was picked to be the first treasurer under the new government.  A lot of historians argue that he is the most important founder because he chose capitalism as our economic system.  {Side note: Capitalism and democracy are not mutually exclusive- capitalism is an economic system, and democracy is a governmental system,.  Therefore, socialism, which is an economic system and democracy can, and indeed do, work together-- just ask Sweden}.   
The man had aspirations-- Hamilton wanted to be President, and almost everyone thought he was a shoe in down the line.  Unfortunately, he had a severely wandering eye...and hands...and other bits, iffun' you get my drift.  Martha Washington actually named a randy tomcat at Mount Vernon Hamilton, that's how bad his reputation was.  Everyone in the in crowd knew about it, but gentlemen did not speak of such things to outsiders, so those on the outside of the inner circle only saw Hamilton's smashingly handsome smile & wickedly quick wit & presidential air.

Alex Hamilton, the playa had game
That is, until it came to light that Hamilton was having an affair with a very, very young wife of another man...and that he was paying her husband monthly for the privilege.  Allegations that Hamilton was actually sharing government business & taking advice from his bit o'tail hit the press, and in a fit of stupidity Hamilton demanded the newspaper print his rather steamy love letters to, you know, to prove it as just lust & not power sharing.  Of course, Hamilton's wife didn't know about the business until the letters were printed, and the letters were pretty raunchy for the age, and Hamilton was ruined.
His Presidential aspirations dashed & his political life in tatters, Hamilton became the man behind the curtain. He made promises, he chose candidates, he got people elected-- and they owed him favors which he duly collected.  Thomas Jefferson, who wanted to try out the presidency once Washington retired, despised Hamilton, and Hamilton returned the sentiment.  So Hamilton set out to be sure that the 2nd president of the United States would be Not Jefferson.
To do it, he traveled up and down the baby United States, calling in favors & organizing a group of electors who owed Hamilton and supported a strong, central government aka The Federalists.  He united them behind the idea that Jefferson put waaaaayyyy too much faith in the stupid, muddled, masses & would cause the ruination of the country.  They believed that a refined, educated,  political class,  groomed to lead the moronic "people", were the only suitable candidates for any office & besides, Hamilton told them to unite and they owed him, so there you go.  In those early days, the president was elected by the electors directly, as opposed to the general vote we have now, so creating this group was relatively easy.  {Another thing students like to play "gotcha" with is the ole "Washington wasn't elected" yarn.  Yes he was.  He was elected exactly as the Constitution outlined at the time.  So there.}  But orchestrating the vote was a bit tricky-- at the time the president was the feller that got the most votes, and the vice president was second runner up.  It wasn't enough for the Federalists that Jefferson not be elected President-- they had to assure he wasn't Vice President either-- which meant a certain number of Federalists had to elect Adams for President, and another, slightly smaller group had to vote for a dude named Pinckney for president-- so that hopefully it came out with Adams as President, Pinckney as Vice President & Jefferson as "Also Ran."
Unfortunately for the country, news of Hamilton's wheeling and dealing reached Jefferson's followers.  They united and formed the Democratic-Republicans, who agreed to do whatever it took to elect Jefferson & hopefully ruin Hamilton in the process.  They accused Adams of being a monarch in presidential clothing {the modern equivalent of accusing the president of being socialist-- and as it is now, there was not a lick of truth to it, but people started foaming at the mouth just the same}.  They said that everything the revolutionists had fought for was at stake.  They said we were being undermined from within.
The election took a turn for the ugly.  {Another side note: EVERY SINGLE AMERICAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION SINCE WASHINGTON HAS BEEN UGLY.  It is a sad but natural side effect of democracy}.
The end result was, Adams was elected President, Jefferson was Vice President, and political parties were born.  A few years later, under the presidency of James Monroe, political parties briefly vanished as the Federalists were drummed out of existence-- that is why it is known as the Era of Good Feeling.  But Andrew Jackson, creator of the 4 year long campaign, will bring the parties back with new names and old purpose: to manipulate voters into keeping a certain group in power, often against the people's better judgement or welfare & to control policy in whatever way is politically expedient, regardless of how it effects the country at large.
I hate political parties.  
If you have any questions, or want sources or more info, just post a comment--

Are you bored yet?  No worries, after tomorrow we will return to our regularly scheduled blog posts~*