Cedar Rapids Gazette (Newspaper) - November 10, 1974, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
U.S. Obsessed with Politics
0 Editor '$ Note: This is the seventh of 18 articles exploring the theme, In Search of the American Dream. This article discusses the preoccupation with politics and constitutional government during the post-revolutionary days of 1787-7 80?. The author is professor of American history, Cornell University.
By Michael Kammen
CoovtgM 1974, Regents of the University of California
Distributed by Cooley News Service
Domestic travelers as well as foreign visitors to the young United States uniformly noticed the national obsession with politics. “They are all politicians,” commented an Englishwoman after a trip through Connecticut.
There was much to be rectified in the political organization of the new nation in order to make law and justice prevail, to avert mob rule, and “to render unnecessary an appeal to the people,” as Jefferson put it, “or in other words a rebellion, on every infraction of their rights.”
Writing in 1781, Jefferson recalled that Virginia’s constitution had been written in 1776 “when we were new and unexperienced in the science of government.” Despite their inexperience, however, from the onset of Revolution the most astute among our Founders had insisted that the good society required a science of politics embodied in sound constitutions. As John Adams said in January, 1776: “The divine science of politics is the science of social happiness, and the blessings of society depend entirely on the constitutions of government.” In 1780 he avowed that “The science of government is my duty to study, more than all other sciences.”
Knowledge of legislation and administration and negotiation took first priority for him.
Adams’ contemporaries increasingly came to share this belief, especially in the years after 1786, when the nerd for a central government stronger than the Confederation became apparent. Their faith had roots deeply embedded in the constitution-writing habit which started within the states and culminated in Philadelphia at the Grand Convention of 1787. Written constitutions quickly came to be seen as blueprints for the wellordered polity and guarantors of the good society. By 1787 Adams was ready to hazard a conjecture that virtue should be properly regarded as an
“effect of the well-ordered constitution, rather than the
cause.” By the time his presidency gave way to Jefferson's, constitutionalism had been securely established as the foundation of the American governmental edifice.
Jefferson, in his first inaugural address in March, 1801, assumed that since the controversial election just passed had been “announced according to the rules of the constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good ”
Talking endlessly about a science of politics, however, was easier than actually discovering or implementing such a science. During the war years, 1776-1783, there had been heavy reliance upon government by committee, both in the Continental Congress and in the localities; so that many worried, by 1779, whether the country would “shortly be overrun by committees.” Under the Articles of Confederation the balance of power tipped a little too much toward the legislative bodies.
Hence the authors of the Federal Constitution in 1787 —feeling an urgent need for more “energy" in public affairs, for getting things done —sought to strengthen the executive branch and correspondingly modify some recent powers of the legislative branch through certain restraints. They also hoped thereby to achieve a better equilibrium and they rationalized that equilibrium in terms of a necessary separation of powers. Their sense of a proper system of checks and balances among the agents of the people was incorporated in the Constitution.
Who Would Govern
Still remaining was the question of exactly who would govern the governors, especially now that the Founders had discovered just how elusive a quality Virtue could be. Their dilemma is best posed, perhaps, in this manner: what is the proper balance between freedom and order in a republican society where men are imperfect and often cannot control their passions?
They had a number of answers, or solutions, and we should note the major ones carefully.
First, the Founders believed in explicit restraints and hoped to avoid ambiguity wherever possible; the limits of power had to be defined. As one student wrote, “the constitution should be the avowed act of the people at large. It should be the first fundamental law of the State, and
should prescribe the limits of all delegated power.”
Second, they intended by the separation of powers not only “that the legislative, executive, and judiciary departments, ought to In* forever separated and distinct from cath other," but also that they would achieve a separation of Offices, i.e., abolish the pernicious colonial practice of plural office-holding.
Third, they thereby meant to have a government not of men but of laws, as Adams asserted in 1787.
Fourth, they envisioned a political society of such vast geographic extent that by encompassing “a greater variety of parties and interest.” in Madison's words, “you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens."
By the end of the 1780s, then, the Founders had come to realize, with John Adams, that “it is the insatiability of human passions that is the foundation of all govern
ment”; and that the science of politics had, as Hamilton said, now “received great improvement.” Their realism did not dampen their enthusiasm,
however, and they continually reaffirmed a strong faith in the necessity and value of republican government. Adams, the most cynical, did so in 1790 and often thereafter. Jefferson, who was more optimistic, insisted in 1801 that “this government (is) the world’s best hope,” and he never ceased to cherish that belief.
The decade of the 1790s was not, however, without its political problems and governmental crista, among them
problems unforeseen by the sagacious students of public life who sat in Philadelphia throughout the summer of 1787. They had not fully anticipated the emergence of political parties and the divisiveness that parties could cause. Nor had they imagined the extent to which a Federalist-dominated judiciary might hand down court decisions along consistently partisan lines. By 1800, therefore, their science of politics was deeply unsettled by the question of whether judges should be responsive to or independent of the will of the people. They had not imagined, t*ithc*r, that popular clubs—grass roots organizations of political life —could become controversial, as they did in 1793-94 Nor had they foreseen that so soon in the history of the new republic there would be a steady shift from Liberty to Stability as the most desired of national needs.
In part the issues of the 1790s, in both domestic and foreign policy, were sparked by genuine disagreements among leaders and populace alike over how best to secure the ultimate goals for which the American Revolution had been fought. And in part these issues were exacerbated by economic self-interest. Thus the Southerners, who before 1776 had been the strongest Anglophiles, now tended to be Francophiles, while the New Englanders now tended to be Anglophiles. Contemporaries had their explanations, of course, many of them hinging upon commercial concerns. But the important point for us is that the emergence of all these issues during the 1790s •required a very major addition to the Founders’ science of politics: recognition and legitimization, for good and for ill, of public opinion as a potent force in national affairs.
In December, 1791, in an important essay on “Public Opinion” in the National Gazette, James Madison wrote: “Public opinion sets bounds to every government and is the real sovereign in every free one.” Both the Federalists in power as well as the Republican opposition, in which Madison played a key organizational role, promptly recognized the need to have wide public support for their policies. They therefore early established newspapers as ideological media. Thus, in 1795, when the Republicans were hoping to defeat John Jay’s Treaty settling territorial and maritime disputes with England, a Virginia politician wrote to a New Yorker that “a change in the public sentiment now so universally manifested against the treaty, is the great desideratum of our opponents. . To this object all their efforts will be pointed, and to frustrate them we have concluded an address to the people of the United States to be printed and dispersed in handbills."
So, too, Madison expressed to Jefferson in February, 1798, his belief that “the public opinion alone can now save us from the rash measures of our hotheaded executive (John Adams).”
The idea of newness, of being unprecedented, also had an important place in the pantheon of early American thought. As Jefferson informed an English friend in March, 1801, “the great extent of our republic is new (i.e., unprecedented). Its sparse habitation is new. The mighty wave of public opinion which has rolled over it is new.” Some made a fetish of their newness, and others even
Town Under Death Sentence
By James Quinn
NIOBRARA. Neb (UPI) -Old Niobrara is under a death sentence.
By December, 1975, all of its 585 residents will have to be out, by order of the federal government. Niobrarans were mad about it for a while, but now a lot are thinking it may bt* for the best.
The reason is they can hear the giant earth movers, cement trucks and other construction machinery that is building a new Niobrara on a bluff south of the town.
Others are still mad. Even though the government is helping out, they say they’re losing money.
Niobrara has to move. The watertable beneath the old town is constantly rising because of Missouri river backup water caused by the Gavins Point dam, built downstream in 1957.
In 1970, congress enacted legislation to spend $11.4 million to move the townsfolk to new homes on the bluff.
“I d say we’ve got a real good chance for a growing town,” Mayor laster Fitch said. “My personal opinion is that the government is doing us a great job.”
A dozen new houses are already in various stages of construction. Many streets are completed, forming a pattern of residential cul-de-sacs and commercial avenues.
Resistance to the move was st first strong, especially when townspeople discovered the U.S. army corps of engineers was not offering the prices they had hoped.
One of the fumier objectors, bank owner Don Farber, said both the engineers and the townspeople have grown more understanding after months of negotiating.
Maharishi U. Professor at Coe Today
James Meade, Ph.D., professor of literature ut Maharishi International university in Fairfield, will speak today at 4 p.m. in Cherry auditorium on the Coe college campus.
His subject will be “Spontaneity in Poetry: The Fundamentals of Progress as the Fundamentals of Poetry”. Dr. Meade is a pioneer in the field of relating the science of creative intelligence, as taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, to the great literature of the world.
His lecture is in connection with World Plan week, U S A , an annual week established by
the International Meditation society.
Dr. Meade is a graduate of Hamilton college and Northwestern university. His lecture is open free to the public.
“It was very tense last spring,” said Farber, whose bank is one of the three largest businesses in town. “But the attitude has changed. The corps is more agreeable and cooperative and maybe we understand their problems more,”
Farber said he had made a counter-offer to the engineers on his bank building and was negotiating. “I hope to settle it without taking it to court,” he said. Editor Bill Schwartzer of the Niobrara Tribune said he settled with the engineers on his plant.
“I hung in there and got what I paid for it,” he said “The engineers weren’t trying to mb us. They were offering a fair market price. ”
Scil waltzer said the “at-mostphere began changing within a week after they began paying for homes.”
Enthusiasm has continued to grow as residents buy land on the new site and find that relocation benefits, on top of the price they received for their old homes, pretty well pay for the new homes, Sch waltzer said. Relocation benefits for homeowners run as high as $15000
While homeowners appear to be coming out well in most cases, Schwartzer said, the relocation benefits for businesses do not match those for homes. However, business men are eligible for 6 percent loans from the Small Business administration.
Schwartzer and Fitch agreed the prospect of operating from a completely new town is appealing to the business men. They said they
knew of none who planned to close shop or move away.
“We may have eight or nine new businesses coming in,” Schwartzer said.
“We have had lots of inquiries from young persons who had moved away in the past few years,” Fitch said. “They think they’d like to move back to the new town.”
The mayor said conversations with townspeople indicated 85 percent planned to relocate on the bluff. “That’s more than we had expected,” he said.
Not all the residents have bought the offer. Michael May, who operates the Missouri river ferry east of town, said he bought a lot across the river in Running Water, S D., and planned to move his house on the ferry.
Mrs. Hazella May, Michael’s mother, who operates a bar with her husband, Glen, said, “We just think we should have more money. When you have to lose $6,000 you can’t understand it. But you don’t really want to fight em, I mean not really.”
Some older residents, such as 70-ish Helen Liska, argued the government should not have the authority to force them to move.
“I do not believe that I should be shouldered with responsibilities that are not of my own making,” she said.
But the growing feeling of the majority appear.-d to be that the new town opens up opportunities that never would have develope at the old townsite.
Post-r&volutionary America found itself preoccupied with politics and constitutional government. This gathering of early American government leaders is entitled ' Learning the Science of Politics and is made available by the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford.
found a tradition in it: a paradoxical American tradition-of-the-new. The young nation’s messianic motto, for example, placed on the obverse of the Great Seal, was adopted from Vergil’s Eclogues: “Novus
Ordo Seclorum"— a new order of the ages is born.
Thinking about such mat
ters induced in some a certain introspective self-consciousness, and raised intriguing questions about the national identity. By the time of Jefferson’s presidency, a surprising degree of consenstls had been reached concerning the fundamentals of the new and divine science of politics. But
the quest for America’s character and destiny was quite another matter—and an open-ended quest, at that.
Courses by Newspaper was develop*^ by UCSD Extension and funded by grants from the National Endowment for the
Humanities, with a supplementary grant from the Exxon Education Foundation.
Next: Making a Prosperous Protestant Nation, 1789-1815 by Michael Kammen. professor of American history, (ornell university.
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