Thursday, February 24, 2011

Required Classes for Civil Discourse: Second Course -- US History to the Civil War

In this series, I'm attempting to outline some basic knowledge that would support significant civil discourse that strengthened the Common Good instead of encouraging us to shout at each other. Last time I explored how a working knowledge of statistics would cause us to argue from established data sources instead of cherry-picking, misconstruing, or simply making stuff up.

My imaginary curriculum adds a second course in United States History, focused especially on the period before the Civil War. This is a fairly common breaking point in US History courses. I believe that the first half is more relevant to imagining our shared future that the second half. Why? Because it's absolutely foundational to how we understand the nation. And too much of what gets included in contemporary debate involves nice stories we've told ourselves that aren't accurate.

Here's the first takeaway lesson from our History class: The country wasn't founded by "The Founding Fathers". We've all picked our favorite heroes and their voluminous biographies usually make the top 10 on the New York Times book list. But the authors of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 were working 169 years after the founding of Jamestown, 156 years after Plymouth Rock, and 146 years after the settlement of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Want to put that in context? Subtract the same period from today and it would be 1842, 1855, or 1865 respectively. Consider the changes in society since Lee surrendered at Appamatox; that's how much time passed between Massachusetts Bay and the Founding Fathers.

So what? Well, the colonies were formed for very different reasons with different assumptions and goals. Jamestown was an economic outpost. Plymouth Rock was where a group of Puritan separatists attempted to carve out their freedom of worship mixed with civil authority. Massachusetts Bay was created as an experiment in civil society. Sarah Vowell's wonderful book, The Wordy Shipmates, explores the differences between the latter two settlements with stark application to contemporary society. That's my second lesson: Forming a Nation Required Negotiating Different Points of View. Independence, when it came, wasn't broadly embraced by everyone running to pour tea in Boston Harbor. Over time, those recognizing that continuing in colonial status wasn't going to work, especially after British soldiers started killing people. (I'll leave Middle East references for some later time, but you get the point).

The Declaration contains beautiful language but it isn't a structure for a new nation. It was simply the prelude to what would follow. Be careful when folks toss around phrases like "in the course of human events" or "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". Those phrases are about why we were no longer part of England but don't begin to explain what it means to be America. This management of difference was also evident among the men who drafted the Declaration. While not completely accurate, the Musical 1776 does a great job of illustrating these differences. Whether minor issues of the national seal (Eagle vs. Turkey) or major issues like Slavery, the differences were stark and reflected the interests of the citizens of the colonies.

Third Lesson: The tension between States Rights and National Government has been around since the beginning. It's useful to go back and review what was in the Articles of Confederation that lasted from 1777 (ratified in 1781) until the Constitutional Convention supplanted it in 1789. If you review nothing more than the Wikipedia site I've linked, you'll see that the States didn't recognize a national entity except to resolve disputes. This notion of a limited national government, with States being the important entities is with us today.

Of course, the Constitution dramatically adjusted the relationship between national and state entities. And when John Jay ruled in Marbury v. Madison (just 13 years after ratification) that the national interests could trump State interests through the checks and balances enumerated in the Constitution it set in motion the idea of a national government. When Madison created a National Bank in 1816, it was within the context of commerce done by the nation as a whole. President Jackson worked to decertify the National Bank and Congress censured him (funny how the sides got switched -- the Democrat was decentralizing and the Congress tried to stop him).

When States argued in the Nullification Crisis that they didn't need to follow National Law they didn't like, Jackson held his own and held off disunion for another 30 years. (Jon Meachem's American Lion does an excellent job of illustrating Jackson's complexity.) When popular rhetoric rails against the national government in favor of the local level, the argument has far more in common with the Articles of Confederation or the Nullification Crisis than with the Constitutional Convention. What John Jay clarified is that the national perspective wasn't "a difference in philosophy". It was the Settled Law of the United States under its Constitution! Within that context there is room to work through what is done by the States and what is done at the National Level (except for what is constitutionally defined) but the National Level does not "overreach" or "engage in power grabs".

The final lesson is that we went to war to resolve the balance between national and regional interests. It may be a matter of semantics to describe the warring armies as the Army of the Union and the Army of the Confederacy, but I think it's telling. The South was fighting for the unique interests of the region, including the institution of Slavery. The North, at least as Lincoln saw it, was fighting to "preserve the Union". After the bloodiest military exercise in our history, the Union prevailed. Not just as an occupying force, but as a concept. That doesn't excuse some of the excesses of Reconstruction, but it does point out that this idea of "E Pluribus Unum" isn't just a nice idea to put on coins. It's the heart of the American Experiment. That's where the Exceptionalism comes from. We'd do well to hold that in high regard when we talk to our fellow citizens.

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