John G Bell
Fall '03 - Gomez & Unsel
Week 2 – Critical Integrative Comment 2
The Early Republic: Sedition, Rebellion and Economic Dissent
The text of the Declaration of Independence included in Creating America was significant because it included the original and redacted texts. There's a gem hidden in this comparison. The original text as written reads, “... and such is now the necessity which constrains them [the colonies] to expunge their former systems of government.” However, the word “expunge” was changed to “alter” in the redacted text.
The more things change the more things stay the same.
This can be seen illustrated, by a fictional account to be sure, in the way that Jefferson was portrayed in Jefferson in Paris attempting to answer the hypocrisy of his beautiful words, when compared to the truth of his actions. This theme was echoed by the way he used his command of the language to seduce Ms Cosway and the truth of his inconstant, manipulative and self-serving acts. He seduced several women, even the hint of seduction in his relationship with his daughter, all the while claiming constancy to his dead wife. The nature of this Jeffersonian standard is in the way he states to Ms. Cosway that they are alive and his wife is dead, so to the living go the benefits. Further, the Jeffersonian ideal is demonstrated in his bargaining with James Hemmings, where he makes a last minute addendum to his solemn promise, bargaining from a position of power, pretending this to be a virtuous equanimity.
In Cornell's The Other Founders, there are consistent themes of how the tradition of government and law were inherited and kept intact. There's also many references to the Whig and English country parentage of dissenting traditions. Far from being new, the rule of law is cited in Irons as the key difference between many destructive revolutions and the success of the American transition. Further, there's constant reminders that the command and control mechanisms were kept in place, otherwise why would we hear the dissenting voice of Shaysism telling us that the new government was not recognizably different in it's treatment of the Plebeians? The shackles of the old government were not so much thrown off as those in power were replaced.
When James Madison did his research before the convention in Philadelphia to prepare for the battle to convince his peers to adopt a new constitution, he could not have had access to information that would tell him about how ancient were the roots of the structure of the government they would adopt. The cuneiform tablets had not yet been exhumed from the earth, but there is an awesome historicity to what that convention accomplished. In a commentary to Inanna, Samuel Noah Kramer, a renouned expert on Sumer, detailed in Sumerian History, Culture and Literature the structure of the Sumerian government.
“Sumerian political history is dominated by the institution of kingship. Originally, political power lay in the hands of the free citizens and a city governor ... who was no more than a peer among peers. In cases vital to the community, these free citizens met together in a bicameral assembly consisting of an upper house of 'elders' and a lower house of young fighting men. As the struggle between the various Sumerian city-states grew more violent and bitter, and as the pressures from the barbaric peoples to the east and west intensified, military leadership became an urgent need, and the king ... came to the fore. At first the king was probably selected and appointed by the assembly at critical moments for specific military tasks. But gradually kingship with all its privileges and prerogatives became a hereditary institution. The kin established a regular army ...” [Kramer p116]
The echo of the transfer of power from the conflicting colonial states, the development of the bicameral legislative body, the ascension of the office of President to wielding enormous political power and as commander of a standing army, and the way in which the office of President has become a position realistically available only to a landed, wealthy aristocracy – these are all recurring themes from a distant past. However, it's not only in the distant past, but through history. Most are familiar with the Greek democracy that invested political power only to the free landed Greek males, and the struggles for power between the increasingly strong, and paradoxially fragile, Emperor of Rome and the Senate. In Jefferson in Paris, we had a glimpse of the struggles for popular political power in the attempt to re-instate the Third Estate, but we didn't hear how this was part of a long standing historical struggle that included the Peasant Revolts and other popular uprisings throughout the history of Europe. Another example is in the struggles in Britain that developed into the bicameral House of Lords and House of Commons.
Throughout history there are popular struggles for representation that transform into strikingly similar bodies of command and control that eventually turn into Old Boy networks of privilege and nepotism linked to standing armies and vast economic interests. This seems to amount to a boom-bust cycle of popular revolt and aristocratic return to control, if for no other reason than the kind of monopoly on profiteering from reconstruction that lifts the previous elite back into power and the shocking frequency by which a new government implements the previous command and control mechanisms out of desperate necessity and convenience. Take the brutal attack on Iraq, the massive conversion of wealth into privatized contracts with extra-national firms that have direct ties to the US administration, the fact that many of the officials from the previous government are being put back in power in a desperate attempt to control our conquest ... Most damning is that this is a consistent pattern suggesting an addiction to meddling violently in the sovereignty of other nations.
We've done this in countless areas across the globe including, but not completely, the Middle East, Central America, South America, Africa and the Philippines. We started to exhibit these serial abusive relationships with the world by our consistently manipulative and violent treatment of the Native Americans. Not only did this become the pattern for our future behaviour in many other countries, but in fact our treatment of the Native Americans during the removals was an inspirational example for the Nazi regime in how to deal with unwanted populations. To be historically broad about it, there are other countless historic examples of this kind of behaviour, like the Highland Clearances, the artificial and created Irish Famines, even the example of the Saxons displacing the Welsh or the Celtic Indo-Europeans displacing the indigenous Basque populations. This only reinforces the point that there appears to be nothing new here.
The historic patterns of popular revolt followed by a rise to power by aristocratic interests, the dispossession of whole populations, the cycle of invasion-conquest-occupation, the way that the aristocratic interests were able to transfer control from one elite to another by riding a popular revolt during the formation of this country are all bellwethers to a deep cultural addiction to violent control and convenient lies. It is in the moire and combination of voices on all sides of these issues that can be heard the mumbling hypnosis of exceptionalism. Our master narrative is one of exceptional freedoms, opportunity and innovation. However, the American project is not a radical new invention, is more about the massive and statistically consistent transfer of wealth to those already in power, is more about the convenient abridgement of freedoms than about protecting those freedoms when it really counts. The American project is a continuation of an abusive relationship that spans at least as far back as the beginning of recorded history. The world needs a restraining order from itself.