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What Came Before The Constitution?: The Story of America [Ep. 8]

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
September 13, 2023 3:01 am

What Came Before The Constitution?: The Story of America [Ep. 8]

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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September 13, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, we learn what came before the Constitution... which was the Articles of Confederation, of course. Bill McClay, author of Land of Hope, tells the story of the good, the bad, and the ugly of America's first organizational document. 

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Pick it up at Amazon or wherever you get your books. When we last left off, America had beaten Britain at Yorktown, but what came next, nobody really knew. Let's get into the story.

Take it away, Bill. I want to talk for a minute at the outset here about the song that we sometimes say was played by that band in Yorktown after America's great victory. That song called The World Upside Down, a British song. The idea was that the British Army band played this tune when they surrendered. It was the custom that the British Army would play an American or French tune, but supposedly Washington refused that and insisted that they play a British march. That's the way the tale is told. A lot of people think it never happened.

But it's a wonderful story, and sometimes perpetuating these kinds of stories is important. It was an English ballad. It was written in response to the efforts of Parliament in the 1640s to not exactly ban the celebration of Christmas, but to make it into an extremely solemn occasion.

So without the festivities, without the gifts, without all the finery and, you know, glorious excess that tends to go with Christmas in certainly the English-speaking world and much the rest of the world. And it didn't go over well. This song arose, and I'll read you the first stanza of it.

Listen to me, and you shall hear. News hath not been this thousand year. Since Herod, Caesar, and many more, you never heard the like before. Holy days are despised.

New fashions are devised. Old Christmas is kicked out of town. Yet let's be content. And the times lament. You see, the world turned upside down.

A sort of pro-Christmas song, but it's ironic. Turning the world upside down didn't really solve some of the fundamental issues facing the nation, some of which were even visible in the war itself. Not everybody was on board for the idea of a revolution or independence. And many who did fight didn't really see it as a full-scale revolution that would include a revolution within colonial society. Some people would say the Revolutionary War was a civil war, our first civil war.

It's a complicated thing. What was the American Revolution? What was the war really about? One historian, Carl Becker, said the war was a war about home rule. He asked the question, was the war about home rule or about who would rule at home?

Let me unpack that. Home rule means would the Americans rule themselves as opposed to being ruled by the British? Who would rule at home, and which Americans would rule at home under home rule? Would it be the same elite classes that were connected to the imperial regime? Would it be the lawyers?

Would it be the doctors? The professional class? Or would it include ordinary Americans? One point I want to make is that the American Revolution was a civil war. One point needs to be made again and again about the revolution itself is it wasn't an elite movement.

It required the active support beginning with the boycotts. It was something that appealed to the people. Thomas Bain didn't write just for the elites.

He wrote for the common man as well. So the victory, which is a victory for equality in the language of the Declaration of Independence, would seem to mean maybe those who would rule at home would be a wider and more diverse cast of characters, not just the elite. That's one complexity. Of course, another complexity is the institution of slavery. When you undertake a revolution that's about freedom, how do you justify the perpetuation, even protection, of an institution that is the antithesis of freedom? And that the revolutionaries themselves used the language of slavery to accuse the British of being tyrants. They would reduce us to slavery.

They said it again and again. So it wasn't as if they didn't know what slavery was. They just didn't see it as applying to this uncomfortably settled institution in some parts of the country. So what would a revolutionary, a new American government look like? Recall the wonderful, admirable, magnificent Declaration of Independence. It does declare independence, but it doesn't declare what's coming next. It leaves a lot of things up in the air. It leaves just how much of a union was this union going to be.

It leaves that up in the air. So what would self-rule look like? What would a new government look like? These were questions that now had to be answered. It had to be done. So a couple of things that the founders, who are very diverse in their opinions, don't let me use the term founders deceive you into thinking they all agreed about everything.

They didn't. But they tended to agree on a couple of things that self-rule meant virtuous citizens were necessary for civic life to flourish. You had to have people who did the right thing, not because they were coerced into doing so, but because it sprang from a sense of what was right and what was virtuous that had been inculcated in them from the start. If you needed a virtuous citizenry, it was thought that America had a sufficiently virtuous citizenry to be self-governed. Second thing is that size was an important consideration.

Size and scale. This had always been the view of theorists of Republican government going back to ancient times, going back to Aristotle. And in modernity, the very influential Montesquieu, French political theorist, read by many of the founders. The republic couldn't be big because it couldn't depart too far from the model of face-to-face institutions with strong interpersonal relationships between people who knew one another and could deliberate together. Aristotle and Montesquieu both set a limit to the size that a political entity could be if it was going to be a republic, if it was going to be self-governing. And if you did bigger than that, you were really taking your chances.

And chances were that your chances weren't going to work out too well for you. So how to do that? How to organize a self-governing entity with virtuous citizens on a sufficiently targeted scale? That was the problem.

How to do that? There was also something they all agreed about. Concentration of power was a danger. A giant continental republic that was completely consolidated was not going to work. It's what they were rebelling against.

Literally. And you're listening to Hillsdale College professor Bill McClay tell one heck of a story about our own country. And my goodness, some of the themes, some of the battles still resonate today.

I love those questions he asked. Was the war about home rule or who would rule at home? And of course, this whole idea of the concentration of power in one place. And my goodness, are we still having that battle? Some people want Washington to be the center of power.

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And I urge you to do just that. When we last left off, the founders were concerned about a concentration of power being the guiding force of their new nation. It's what they were rebelling against, after all. Let's return to the story.

Here again is Bill Maclay. Obviously, it would be important to keep a lot of power in the states. This was vitally important to all of the founders or nearly all of them.

Nothing else would be acceptable at that time. So what came after the Revolution, but before the Constitution, was something called the Articles of Confederation. The Articles were adopted from the outset. They were never formally ratified during the Revolutionary War, but it was sort of understood that they were in effect.

And they had a very clear statement. Let me read you Article 2 of the Articles of Confederation. Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence in every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this confederation delegated to the United States in Congress assembled.

That's pretty strong. Notice that we use the word confederation. It's not by this confederation delegated to the United States in Congress assembled.

You know, your association with the word confederation may go with the Confederacy of the Old South, the rebellious side in the Civil War. But the word has a more general meaning of a very loose federation. Not a precise meaning, but a very loose confederation. So they're saying states are sovereign. Every power, jurisdiction, and right, not branded, specifically enumerated, delegated to the United States. There's the states. So that's a pretty strong endorsement of the idea that we're not going to have a big consolidated nation state, modern nation state, such as we would have if we had a king.

And the structure of the Articles reflected this. Every state in the Congress had a single vote. So to get anything done, you needed to have either unanimous vote or a supermajority. It needed to be overwhelmingly popular and acceptable to all concerned. This shows just how concerned they were about centralized power taking hold.

And I will say this for them, how smart they were to understand that they couldn't just depend on people's sentiments. It had to be present and firmly rooted in the structure of the law itself. They built the law in a way that ensured that the states would have the bulk of the power. It did mean that Congress wasn't able to do much of anything. In terms of foreign policy, in terms of internal trade, in terms of taxation, in terms of a lot of other things, raising the revenues to run a full-blown national government.

The Articles were pretty inadequate. But I do want to be fair and mention one thing that the Congress did under the Articles of Confederation that was surpassingly good. And that was the Northwest Ordinance. It forbade the importation of the institution of slavery in the Northwestern states. Now, Northwest at that time meant, you know, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, that part of the country.

Some of you may know there's a university in Chicago called Northwestern, and it gets its name from that notion of the old Northwest. It did many other things. It abolished primogeniture, the inheritance of a deceased father, going to the eldest son in entirety.

That was abolished. What that meant is that America, right off the bat, Wells was going to be more widely distributed. You weren't going to have great estates in which the eldest son presided over the great estate and the other sons were left to kind of join the clergy or the army or to do what they could, as in the countries of Europe. No, everybody was going to get an equal share, roughly equal, some part of the inheritance. And that was going to lead to diffusion of wealth, diffusion of social conditions, rough equality, rough equality. I think almost as important was the method that it established for the creation of new states. You know, this is often an issue in the expansion of a country. How do you bring in new parts without them being treated as conquered provinces or having a lesser status? The Northwest Ordinance was really, really very, very, very good about this.

It created something. Daniel Boorstin, the historian, called it the out-of-state plan. The Western lands would be able to enter the union on terms exactly equal to those of the existing states. They wouldn't be like colonial dependencies. They would enter the union on the same terms as everybody else.

This is really quite brilliant. We take it for granted. And something else to mention, I mentioned the importance of a virtuous citizen. The Northwest Ordinance explicitly sets aside public lands for educational institutions and makes the following statement about them. Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.

It's interesting, the founders saw religion, morality and knowledge all going together. So, there's some good things about the Art of Confederation, but it was a wanting in other respects. The British had refused to withdraw from the military post they had in the Northwest despite the fact that the Treaty of Paris commanded them to do so, the treaty that had ended the revolution. The Spanish had control of the Mississippi River. The lifeline of the central, what would be central, then Western states. It was going to be very important that a hostile power not be in control of the Mississippi, and specifically the city of New Orleans.

So, all this obviously needed to be taken care of. The British needed to be moved out. The Spanish needed to be persuaded to abandon control of the Mississippi. But we didn't have a government that could do it. We didn't have a government that could engage in effective diplomacy. And there were other problems. There was an economic fallout from the war. The British had been, you know, our great trading partners. The British restricted American imports and dumped low-priced goods on our markets, which made life very difficult for the often...
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-10-03 01:53:58 / 2023-10-03 02:02:10 / 8

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