By Peter Berger
In 1783 the country we live in went by the ungainly name “The United States in Congress Assembled.” The states designed that pre-Constitution central government so that the individual states retained most of the governing power. The Confederation government, for example, couldn’t tax anybody. It could only ask the states for contributions. In its first year the Confederation Congress requested eight million dollars to pay its national expenses. The states contributed four hundred thousand.
As a result the Confederation couldn’t pay the militia and Continental Army soldiers who’d fought and won the Revolutionary War. In 1783 four hundred irate, unpaid soldiers brandishing bayonets descended on Independence Hall in Philadelphia where the Confederation Congress was meeting. According to one apocryphal account, when Alexander Hamilton urged the Confederation president to call out the Pennsylvania militia to put down the mutiny, the president pointed out the window at the armed and angry mutineers and replied, “They are the Pennsylvania militia.”
Congress promptly fled Philadelphia for the safety of Princeton, New Jersey, the first in a series of temporary homes.
Being driven from your capital is hardly an auspicious start for a new country.
By 1787 the Confederation’s crippling weakness was hard to ignore. It was especially hard to ignore the yearlong uprising in western Massachusetts. Farmers unable to pay their mortgages and their ever-escalating property taxes were losing their farms. Led by Continental Army veteran Daniel Shays, they formed militias, shut down the courts to end the foreclosures, and laid plans to capture a Confederation armory so they could steal more weapons. The rebellion failed, thanks mostly to an opposing force raised by the Massachusetts state government.
The Confederation’s impotence by now came as no surprise. But when people considered that Massachusetts farmers, upset about taxes, had once again formed militias and begun stockpiling weapons, the resemblance to Lexington and Concord made clear just how dangerous that impotence was.
The peril was clear enough to convince George Washington that everything gained from eight years of Revolutionary struggle was at risk. It was clear enough to prompt men like Hamilton and Madison to press for a new, more effective national government. Their widely shared though hardly unanimous opinion led to the 1787 Philadelphia convention that produced the Constitution.
The framers didn’t agree about the form or scope of the national government. Jefferson advocated a limited government with most of the power entrusted to the states and the people. At the other pole Hamilton argued that a strong central government could better protect against foreign aggression and foster a robust national economy. Madison voiced their common conviction that government needed to be strong enough to do its job but sufficiently bridled so it didn’t intrude excessively on the people’s liberty.
None of them lobbied for ineffective government. After all, only a nation’s enemies would plot and contrive to weaken and undermine its government.
Over recent decades legitimate conservative advocacy of limited government has mutated into an increasingly coordinated campaign to sabotage government. Reasoned debate has given way to a blood sport of invective, false courtesies, and deliberate misrepresentations of any contrary opinion. Led by their grim reaper McConnell, Republicans are chiefly responsible for a dark age of legislative paralysis. The Senate that once touted itself as the world’s greatest deliberative body has degenerated into a wasteland where government goes to die.
Don’t misunderstand. Democrats aren’t without guilt when it comes to playing politics, and progressives’ frequently glib dismissal of opposing views makes me cringe. But while Democrats’ follies and faults are often counterproductive, they aren’t nearly as perilous as Republicans’ crimes and malfeasance.
Over the last four years, lawyerly misrepresentations have metastasized into perpetual lies. Self-interest has decayed into shameless corruption. Incompetence thrives through neglect and by design. Liz Cheney is censured for the sin of acknowledging Trump’s glaring guilt. The party of Lincoln has instead become the party of Gaetz, Greene, Boebert, Hawley, Johnson, and Cruz. Their watchwords are Ignorance, Cowardice, Ambition, and Deceit.
There was also an insurrection.
Four years ago could you have imagined a Capitol gallows, erected to hang the Vice President? Did you ever expect a President of United States to launch a coup to overturn a lawful election and overthrow the government of the United States?
Oh well. Don’t worry. We can pretend it never happened.
That’s what Trump says. It never happened. It’s his latest big lie.
Sixty percent of Republicans persist in believing Trump’s deceit that the election “was stolen.” Half insist the events at the Capitol were “peaceful” or that the attack on Congress was mounted by violent left-wing activists “to make Trump look bad.” Four out of five “still view Trump favorably.”
James Madison concluded that a republic will survive only as long as “the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and intelligence” to govern them. The architect of our Constitutional system of checks and balances forewarned us that no form of government “will secure liberty or happiness without virtue in the people.”
Our times and Trump’s insurrection have shown us what happens to a republic when its people turn their backs on virtue and intelligence, and embrace instead antics, lies, and treachery.
We can learn that lesson today.
Or we can stop our ears, close our eyes, and wait for the next and final insurrection.
The choice is still ours – for now.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.