In light of the recent events at the U.S. Capital and in our country, I thought it fitting to share some lessons that I have learned in my studies of the history and government of this nation. I will qualify this column with the statement that in regards to my knowledge of history, I know more than some but less than others. Also, not all historians agree about the significance and interpretations of historical events. We have a limited amount of facts available to us from the historical record, and then we create a picture of history based upon our interpretation of those events. The following are interpretations based upon my reading of history; other historians may see these events differently.
Lesson 1: It has been this bad and worse before. Independence was declared in 1776 and won in 1781 with the British surrender. However, within a few short years, the country descended into chaos as the national government under the Articles of Confederation proved disastrously weak. Each state was printing its own money, like greeting cards before Valentine’s Day, leading to massive inflation. State governments were rife with factions of all sorts pushing various agendas into law without any deliberation as to the consequences. Protesters took to the streets with guns in what is called Shay’s Rebellion. Foreign nations were at the borders ready to carve up the Disunited States of America, and the central government couldn’t even raise an army.
Lesson 2: The founders anticipated much of what happened the past few months, not because they could see the future, but because they had lived through lesson 1. They created the Constitution in reaction to the failing Articles of Confederation. It should be noted that the Convention in Philadelphia was called together for the purpose of revising the Articles but diverged within days into the “illegal” act of drafting a new government.
Lesson 3: A major challenge for the Convention was to create a national government strong enough to protect the country from foreign nations and internal factions but limited enough to ensure the liberties of its citizens. They settled on a republic, which like the Articles, rested ultimate power in the people.
Lesson 4: History did not bode well for this idea. Most of the historical democracies had collapsed due to internal chaos brought on by factions within the citizenry. It turns out Athens, Rome and others had their own versions of Antifa, Qanon, The Proud Boys, etc. As such, the founders spent a great amount of time building in safeguards against such factions. This is the reason for the existence of the Electoral College, a six-year term of office in the Senate and the superiority of the national government over the states.
Lesson 5: The founders were not unified in their ideas. They disagreed, sometimes vehemently, but they listened to each other, and when necessary, compromised with each other for the sake of creating a union more perfect than the Articles.
Lesson 6: The founders were not perfect in their creation of the Constitution. It initially lacked a Bill of Rights. They did not seem to anticipate the dominance that political parties would eventually wield in the nation. They were overly focused on the legislative branch as Article I takes up 52% of the Constitution. In comparison, Article II on the executive branch takes up 23% of the Constitution, and Article III on the judicial branch takes up only 8%.
Lesson 7: The Constitution fell short of the vision statement laid out in the Declaration of
Independence, that all men are created equal. The Constitution did not contain the word slave or slavery denying moral sanctioning to that institution, but nonetheless it offered legal sanctioning of slavery. It also allowed for the limiting of rights of women, American Indians, and property-less men through explicit or tacit means.
So now what? My advice is to turn off the cable news, put down your one sided social media feed and instead pick up a book about history. You might be surprised what you will learn, most all of it true. Then go shovel your neighbor’s sidewalk, even if he is flying a Trump flag. Bake some cookies for your other neighbor, even if she has a Biden sign in the yard. When the convention was over, somebody supposedly asked Ben Franklin what kind of government they had created. He replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Guest columnist Jared Barse is a social studies teacher at Onamia High School.
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